OARDC Biomass to Energy Program

Dr. Lynn Willett, Professor, Department of Animal Sciences, The Ohio State University

The rapid escalation of energy prices in the wake of Hurricane Katrina only provides an exclamation on the fact that the United States and world will not be able to sustain energy needs based on petroleum. Alternative and renewable energy sources will need to be developed to meet the increasing demand for environmentally friendly energy. Approximately four years ago, scientists from the Department of Animal Sciences initiated a program based on the biological conversion of biomass to energy through anaerobic digestion. An initial survey of resources indicated that Ohio was in a preferential position to produce heat and/or electrical energy from by-products of agricultural and food production.

Although anaerobic digestion of livestock manures to produce methane-based biogas for limited heating and electrical generation is an established technology, the cost of systems and the suboptimal typical biogas composition of approximately 60% methane and 35% carbon dioxide compromise economic returns in comparison to systems using fossil fuels. Anaerobic digestion with manure as the sole feedstock is generally a stable process but provides low energy and economic yield. In contrast, use of high-strength food waste feedstocks with their higher potential for energy and economic returns, often results in unstable anaerobic digestion and unreliable production of biogas. Clearly, the biological processes and digester designs must be improved for the incorporation of high-energy feedstocks. A better understanding of bioprocesses associated with the anaerobic digestion of high-energy food wastes would provide a basis for anaerobic digestion of manure-food waste feedstock combinations that could improve the composition and yield of biogas while preserving process reliability. Improved biogas quality may be applicable to new technologies for improved efficiency for electricity and heat production.

With the leadership of Dr. Floyd Schanbacher, Director, OSU/OARDC Biomass to Energy Program, faculty were identified with resident expertise in biology, biochemistry, microbiology, analytical chemistry, nutrition, and economics, which could provide an interdisciplinary approach to the conversion technologies needed. Whereas the central core of these faculty resides in the Department of Animal Sciences, researchers from other departments play key roles in the research program. Further, a group of industrial collaborators, food processors, and producers provide support to the program. The collaborations have been organized in a "hub and spoke" model which allows for multiple collaborators, focused on different market niches, to work toward a common objective. As a result of this research and its innovative organizational model, the Ohio Agricultural Research and Development Center was awarded a prestigious 2005 NorTech Innovation Award. In part the citation reads:..."This ability to simultaneously pursue multiple independent commercial paths based on a single core technology will rapidly accelerate the development of innovative new products and services for our economy, and brings together in a unique way our state's agricultural and technology communities in what we hope is just the beginning of a new trend in agricultural technology ventures."

The researchers collaborating in this Biomass to Energy Program have attracted significant grant funding from the Ohio Third Frontier Wright Project program, the U. S. Department of Energy, U. S. Department of Agriculture, plus industrial and university sources which will be primarily creating the physical and laboratory facilities to conduct the needed biological research. Aside from specialized laboratory equipment, a section of the Krauss Dairy Center is being renovated for biomass to energy research. It will house two research-scale (1,600 gallon each) and multiple smaller-scale research anaerobic digester systems. These will be coupled to solid-oxide fuel cells to convert biogas to electricity. An additional major component of the research program will be a 3-stage pilot-scale anaerobic digester with an 8,000 gallon capacity. This unit will be located near major biomass producers. This research unit will provide biogas for heat production to power fuel cells or to evaluate turbine and internal combustion technologies, while providing verification of operational efficiencies and yield at near commercial conditions and scales.

It is anticipated that the results of this research will allow Ohio livestock and food production entities to become competitive contributors to regional energy needs. It is hoped that, in many instances, the production of energy will become a major source of income to Ohio agricultural producers.