SERC Scales Up Biocrude Production to Prepare for Commercialization

By Kristen Dechert

Plans are underway for a state-of-the-art, 7,000-square-foot pilot-scale facility for the Sustainable Energy Research Center (SERC). This plant will allow Mississippi State University (MSU) and SERC to produce biocrude and bio-oil in larger quantities than are currently possible at MSU as well as yield results that could be used for commercialization of SERC production technologies. The Biocrude thrust, led by Dr. Rafael Hernandez, will especially benefit from the facility.

Biocrude is oil produced using lignocellulosic sugars and microorganisms contained within wastewater and can be converted to biodiesel or used as a green-fuel feedstock at refineries. One of the facility's main purposes will be to produce biocrude; however, researchers will also be determining the conditions under which biocrude is best produced for possibly commercializing the process and implementing it at existing wastewater-treatment plants. SERC will also use the pilot-scale testing to determine calculations and costs of biocrude production and refining.

Converting wastewater into biocrude is a relatively simple bioprocess. First, similar to a wastewater treatment facility, the wastewater and microorganisms are fed to a fermentor. Sugars are added to the mixture to increase the yield of oil production. Initially the SERC pilot facility will ferment in 500-liter batches; however, SERC expects to increase the capacity by 2,000 liters in the next two years, bringing the total fermentation capacity to 2,500 liters. The microorganisms transform lignocellulosic sugars into oil. After a week, the mixture is removed from the fermentor, and the microorganisms are separated from the water by use of a centrifuge, membranes, or combination of the two. Next, the oil is extracted from the microorganisms; this oil is the biocrude. At the current 500-liter batch size, Hernandez expects this process to generate 1 gallon of biocrude per day, totaling about 6 gallons per week.

To monitor and gain insight into this process, the plant will have a number of sensors in various locations. The sensors will measure many variables, including temperature, pressure, volume flow, mass flow, carbon-to-nitrogen ratios, and microbial inhibitors in the flow streams. The facility will include a fermentor, separation unit, dryer, extractor, solvent recovery system, and oil-conversion reaction system. The facility will also have equipment for testing new groupings of microorganisms specialized in oil production, which could further increase biocrude production.

The pilot plant will benefit SERC in a number of ways. SERC's primary interest is converting the biocrude into biodiesel or green diesel for use in transportation fuels. However, the wastewater, lignocellulosic sugars, and biocrude could also be used to produce specialty chemicals used in herbicides, medications, inks, and paper coatings.

The pilot-scale testing will also be of interest to industry. Interested industry groups will be able to use the facility to test their own wastewater, utilizing SERC's equipment and expertise. Already, SERC has regional, national, and international organizations interested in collaboration. These potential partners include General Atomics, International Paper, Wayne Farms, Bioenergy, Lazy Magnolia Brewing Company, and the Environmental Protection Agency.

Other MSU groups will be using the facility as well. Such groups include the Institute for Clean Energy Technology (ICET) and the Departments of Chemical Engineering (CHE), Plant and Soil Sciences, and Industrial and Systems Engineering. The pilot plant will be operated by ICET personnel and CHE students and staff involved in the Biocrude thrust.

While the primary function of the SERC pilot facility will be biocrude and bio-oil production, the building will also contain office space, a conference room, and observation areas. These areas will allow testing and production to be viewed by visitors and used for educational purposes and industry demonstrations.

Although the SERC pilot plant facility is not yet built, the biocrude conversion equipment will be ready later this fall. Not wanting to delay the project, Hernandez notes that CHE is permitting SERC to temporarily place the equipment in the department's high-bay area, which will allow testing and conversion to begin immediately. The full-scale operation will begin when the building is complete in summer 2011.


Alternative Fuel Research Energizes State with Shades of Green

By Diane L. Godwin

Mississippi Governor Haley Barbour emphasized the importance of creating more American derived fuels during his keynote speech at the 2010 MSU BioFuels Conference hosted by the Bagley College of Engineering Sustainable Energy Research Center (SERC).

"America's economy has been and is based on available, affordable energy. In order for our country and our state to remain competitive, we're not only going to continue to use petroleum, natural gas, nuclear, and coal, we're going to have to learn to use alternative energy," Barbour stated. "Which means we're going to support in every possible way how to further Mississippi's already good position in biofuels."

Dr. Todd French an MSU chemical microbiologist joined a standing room only crowd representing some of the world's most renowned, renewable energy scientists, corporate and government dignitaries, and university researchers. Some of the "whose who" in alternative energy research included Drs. Doug Elliot, from the Pacific Northwest National Laboratory (PNNL) and Robert Baldwin, from the National Renewable Energy Laboratory, both of whom traveled nearly 2,000 miles to attend and discuss the latest alternative energy advances and research innovations.

"I think biofuels is really a hot topic right now because people are looking at rising fuel prices and realizing America is relying more and more on foreign oil, and the oil spill incident in the Gulf has not hurt the interest in renewables," French explained. "The fact is we consume petroleum at a rate greater than what nature can put it back and the writing is on the wall that eventually it is going to play out."

The quality of research taking place at the Sustainable Energy Research Center is receiving high profile attention. Fortune 500 companies like General Atomics and the U.S. Air Force Research Laboratory are collaborating resources to support French and Dr. Rafael Hernandez's research. They've identified microorganisms that grow extremely fat with oil when feeding off nutrients found in wastewater treatment facilities. If 70 percent of the nation's municipal water treatment facilities captured that oil, it could be converted into about 800 million gallons of biodiesel a year. Add in the number of industrial wastewater treatment facilities potential of utilizing microorganisms selected for their oil-producing capabilities and biodiesel production could reach the 10 billion gallon mark.

"Energy is the lifeblood of our economy. I've often said our research universities are economic development gold mines," Barbour said. "Through {biofuel} research at Mississippi State University, in the next 60 days or so, I think we will have another biofuels announcement in the state about a technology company that is involved in the renewable energy world. And the technology and process they're interested in is at MSU."

Sooner than expected, Governor Barbour announced that KiOR, a Texas based biofuel company, secured a $75 million loan to build five plants in Mississippi that converts wood chips into a petroleum replacement. According to an article on, KiOR's technology uses a priority catalyst in a fluid catalytic racking process to convert biomass, such as woodchips or agriculture residue, into a petroleum replacement. The process also yields gases that can be burned to make electricity to power the equipment.

Mississippi approved $51 million in bonds as an economic incentive package to help lure the company that will invest $500 million in the state and create 1,000 new jobs. Part of the incentive package includes $1 million for continued research at MSU's Sustainable Energy Research Center.

"KiOR is making a petroleum replacement, rather than ethanol, from timber harvest biomass, such as woodchips, a non competitive food resource. This alternative fuel can be directly sent to the refinery infrastructure for treatment to make gasoline or diesel equivalents," Dr. Glenn Steele, director of SERC explained. "SERC will receive $250,000 a year for the next four years to assist KiOR in further developing the technology."

Another company, besides KiOR, whose name remains confidential, also finds SERC's research an attractive investment, and in the future also may locate a manufacturing plant in Mississippi. The company in question has successfully built an industrial prototype of a bioreactor that produces bio-oil using a process known as fast pyrolysis—the thermal degradation of biomass in the absence of air. The main ingredients can be wood, agricultural products and residue.

Dr. Phil Steele, SERC team thrust leader, and members from the departments of forest products, chemistry, chemical, agricultural and biological engineering, as well as the Institute for Clean Energy Technology are responsible for taking this technology from the laboratory into commercialization.

"The bioreactor design is being tested at 10 ton per day scale and has passed all its bench marks and that triggered the need to license formally, so that should take place in a month or so," Steele explained. "This company already has investors to help them go forward with their plans to build a 100 ton facility in 2012."

Large energy companies also are expressing interest in the pyrolysis biofuel. One request is to test a quantity of 3,000 gallons. Currently, they're producing 100 to 200 milliliters a day.

"Their requests mean we're getting a lot closer to commercialization. However we need to increase our production level of biofuel for testing," Dr. Glenn Steele, director of SERC, explained. "We're going to build a 7,000 square foot pilot-scale facility beside the Institute for Clean Energy Technology in the Thad Cochran Research Park."

Four thousand of the 7,000 foot facility will occupy the pyrolization research and the other 3,000 feet will occupy French and Hernandez's pilot scale microbial research.

"This is such an exciting field right now. When I visited Dr. Phil Steele's lab and Dr. Mark White's lab, I did learn some surprising things that we at PNNL hadn't realized yet," Dr. Doug Elliot said. "I'd love to get some more details on the catalytic converters they're working on, but all of that is in the intellectual property realm right now."

The third successful alternative energy project generated from SERC is Dr. Mark White's syngas to gasoline research. The former director of the Dave C. Swalm School of Engineering invented a catalyst that converts the gas of burning wood in a gasifier, called synthesis gas, into a liquid hydrocarbon that can be made into fuel or taken to a refinery to make other petroleum products like plastic. It is made from using biomass, the slash left over from wood harvest and the seasonal natural residue shed from trees. Recently the production of the hydrocarbon from his innovative syngas to gasoline technology was scaled up from the micro bioreactor to producing the alternative energy at the pilot scale over at the PACE laboratory.

"We filed a patent on the syngas to gasoline technology. There are certain criteria where technology is judged to be patentable and happens during the patent examination process," White explained. "The aspect of novelty is examined and either found to be really novel, meaning no one else has done it or it isn't. So, that process is now started, it will take 18 months to five years before we know for sure if we have the patent."

Since SERC opened its doors in 2006 the leadership philosophy has been that researchers look at a portfolio of alternative energy technologies. Mississippi State scientists and engineers have invented three alternative energy technologies that will soon go to commercialization. They include the microbial biocrude, pyrolysis bio-oil and the syngas to gasoline innovations.

"We realize we could research the science forever, but our goal at the SERC is to transform research into commercialization as quickly as we can because that is the way we really can make a difference in weaning America's dependence off foreign oil," Dr. Glenn Steele, director of SERC, said.

The fifth annual biofuels conference was sponsored by the National Science Foundation and grants from the U.S. Department of Energy. For more information about SERC, please visit

"There are not too many other universities around the country that are at this kind of level of commitment and effort going into alternative energy research. So, yes, I would say MSU is one of the leaders in the country," said Doug Elliot, from PNNL.


Novel Catalyst Discoveries Prompt Syngas-to-Liquid Hydrocarbons Pilot-Scale Testing

By Kristen Dechert

In order to decrease U.S. dependence on non-renewable, petroleum-based crude oil, researchers all over the country are studying alternative energy sources. In many parts of the Southeast and at Mississippi State University's (MSU) Sustainable Energy Research Center (SERC), researchers are focusing on converting biomass into biocrude, bio-oil, and other products. One group at SERC making great strides in this conversion research is the Syngas to Liquid Hydrocarbons thrust area, led by Dr. Fei Yu.

In this thrust, biomass is converted to syngas, and this syngas is processed and eventually converted into different types of products, primarily transportation fuels. To start the process Yu's team tests and selects biomass with desirable yields of syngas. Currently, the group is using residual pine wood chips, switchgrass, miscanthus, and municipal waste, including plastic and particleboard. This biomass then undergoes gasification, a process that heats the biomass to 800°C and uses a downstream gasifier to produce a gas consisting of hydrogen (H2), carbon monoxide (CO), methane (CH4), carbon dioxide (CO2), and nitrogen (N2). SERC currently generates at least 60 cubic meters of biosyngas per hour. Due to the gasification process, this biosyngas contains large amounts of residual CO2, and N2. These residuals will hurt the effectiveness of  the catalysts if technicians attempt to directly convert the syngas into transportation fuels. Therefore, SERC researchers must clean the syngas first. The syngas undergoes a series of different types of cleaning to trap tars, water, and molecular particles. Once thoroughly cleaned, the syngas is ready for catalytic conversion. Through the use of novel catalysts, Yu's team is able to convert the syngas and refine the oil into renewable transportation fuels.

While this process is not unusual for syngas conversion, SERC has had important recent discoveries. Typical syngas conversion requires two catalysts, but Yu and other Syngas to Liquid Hydrocarbons thrust members have discovered a way to convert the syngas using only one. In addition to this breakthrough, two novel catalysts have been discovered by SERC researchers. Former Syngas to Gasoline thrust leader, Dr. Mark White has a provisional patent on one catalyst, which SERC used in its first-generation testing, and Yu has recently discovered another catalyst that will be used in addition to White's for the second-generation testing. This new catalyst is even more robust than its first-generation counterpart, and it will give a higher yield of transportation fuel during the conversion process. The second-generation catalyst also has the ability to work under high CO2 and N2 concentrations, which Yu's team found unusual in many of the catalysts tested.

 The thrust members have been testing conversion of syngas to liquid hydrocarbons at the lab scale. At this scale, researchers have established a way to use syngas for transportation fuel by utilizing the current petroleum infrastructure. The hydrocarbons can be transported through existing petroleum pipelines to refineries for conversion to gasoline, diesel, and jet fuel.

While the past two years at the lab scale have been testing the feasibility of the project, SERC now has an energy-efficient way to convert the syngas and is beginning construction of a pilot-scale testing facility. Thrust members are currently designing and building the pilot plant, which is expected to be in full operation by fall 2011. The pilot-scale facility is expected to yield about 1 gallon of fuel per day. This pilot-scale testing will be used for economical analysis, and the fuel produced could eventually be sent to an engine testing lab for comparison with gasoline and diesel fuels currently used.

Yu is an assistant professor in MSU's Department of Agricultural and Biological Engineering. He regularly teaches Transportation in Biological Engineering for undergraduate students and Biomass and Bioenergy for graduate students; this latter course was developed by Yu. As thrust leader of Syngas to Liquid Hydrocarbons, Yu oversees syngas conversion to gasoline and diesel fuel. His colleague, Dr. Todd Mlsna, Associate Professor of Chemistry at MSU, oversees a similar project related to jet fuel. Together, Yu and Mlsna work with two post-doctoral fellows, seven doctoral students, and one research associate.

Faculty Profile: Dr. Sandra Eksioglu

Andro Mondala
Sandra Eksioglu

Department and semester/year of hire

Industrial and Systems Engineering, August 2005 

Degrees and institutions

Ph.D.            Industrial Engineering            University of Florida
M.S.            Management Sciences            Mediterranean Agronomic Institute of Chania, Greece
B.S.            Business Administration            University of Tirana, Albania     

Please tell us about your work prior to coming to MSU.

Prior to joining MSU as an Assistant Professor, I worked as an Instructor for MSU and Case Western Reserve University, and I worked as an Assistant Professor for the University of Evansville.

Please discuss your area(s) of specialty.

My research work is focused on modeling, analyzing, and solving large-scale, logistics, and dynamic supply-chain management problems. Specifically, I consider the problem of managing production, inventory, and distribution that is faced by many companies that are part of large supply chains. The goal is to design a production and transportation schedule as well as an inventory policy that minimizes system-wide costs. I use math programming tools to model and solve these problems.  

Please tell us about some of the courses you have taught and/or developed at MSU.

I regularly teach Systems Simulation I and Information Systems for Industrial Engineers. These are both Industrial Engineering core courses. At the graduate level, I teach Network Flow and Dynamic Programming and Nonlinear Programming.

What research projects are you involved in at MSU?

Most of the research projects I have been involved in are related to supply-chain design and management for biofuels. In my models, I have considered corn, lignocellulosic biomass, and waste (from wastewater-treatment plants) being used as biomass feedstocks to produce biofuels. This research has been funded by the Office of Research and Economic Development at MSU, Mississippi Technology Alliances, National Center for Intermodal Transportation, and SERC.

In addition, I have been involved in projects related to transportation systems design, evacuation, and production scheduling. These projects have been funded by Mississippi Department of Transportation, U.S. Small Business Administration, U.S. Department of Homeland Security, and Northrop Grumman Corporation.    

Which of these research projects are you involved in with SERC?

I work with the Drs. Rafael Hernandez and Todd French, who are also members of SERC. My contribution is to design supply chains that will support production of biodiesel through biocrude generated from wastewaters at wastewater-treatment plants. The purpose of my research is to identify facility locations, transportation modes, and transportation paths for biomass feedstock so that transportation and inventory costs in the system would be minimized.  

Please tell us about any recent or upcoming conferences and/or publications in which you discuss this SERC research.

I discussed this research at the 2010 Institute of Industrial Engineers Annual Meeting, which was held in the beginning of June in Cancun, Mexico. I also presented this research at the 5th Annual MSU BioFuels Conference last month in Jackson, MS. My graduate student plans to present this research at the 2010 INFORMS (Institute for Operations Research and Management Science) Annual Meeting that will take place November in Austin, TX. During the last academic year, my graduate students have presented posters of this research on several occasions (e.g., 4th Annual MSU BioFuels Conference, 2nd Annual MSU Transportation Workshop, and 2010 MAS/INFORMS SW Regional Conference).

Please discuss your upcoming research project(s).

My next project is again related to Biocrude supply chains. So far, we have designed optimization models to identify facility locations and estimate transportation costs. Our next step is to build a simulation-optimization model to identify ways to improve this supply chain. My group plans to build a discrete-event simulation model to capture the day-to-day dynamics of this chain. I think we now have a large amount of data to support the simulation model.

Spring 2010 News

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