Iowa State engineering group continues work on biofuel despite EPA regulations

Change in renewable fuel standards could impact biofuel demand

Published: January 30 2014 | 5:35 am - Updated: 29 March 2014 | 2:52 am in

On the day feedback ends for an important Environmental Protection Agency energy draft, a group of faculty and students at Iowa State University announced an update to a possible solution which conflicts with the draft’s limitations, all surrounding the issue of biofuel.

The ISU engineers announced Tuesday they received funding of $75,000 to invest into technology to further look into their research. They have a patented technology used to quickly heat biomass (such as corn stalks, special types of grass, and wood) which is called fast pyrolysis. The process creates advanced biofuel, which can be used with gasoline to power transportation.

“We don’t use traditional crops like we used to,” said Robert Brown, director of the Bioeconomy Institute at ISU. “If you used to look at what we’re using, you would think you could build a house of it or use it as animal feed, but you never looked at it as ‘We can use this as fuel.’”

ISU students and faculty have been working on this project for15 years. The University of Iowa also is doing work with biofuel, but does not have the same patented technology as ISU Although ISU is able to accomplish their goal of making the advanced biofuel, consumer demand is stopping the group from putting the fuel completely on the market.

“Essentially we’d produce fuel, but you have to look at the current cost of a barrel of oil,” said Lysle Whitmer, senior engineer with the Center for Sustainable Environmental Technologies. “Oil is cheap gasoline, and if oil is cheap, there’s no use to try [to introduce] anything different.”

The news of funding for the biofuels pilot plant follows on the heels of the final day of receiving feedback on the EPA’s proposal to change the renewable fuel standards.  In November, the EPA proposed for the first time to lower the level of renewable fuel that is required to be in transportation fuel. Many officials, including Gov. Terry Branstad, are against the changes the EPA is proposing to the bill.

“The EPA has turned its back on rural America, and our economy and family farms will suffer as a result,” Branstad said in a press release. “... We have more than 50 ethanol and biodiesel plants in Iowa, and these EPA reductions would negatively impact thousands of Iowa jobs. I will lock arms with our agricultural groups, our family farmers, leaders from both parties, and Iowans in fighting for Iowa’s homegrown, reliable, and safe renewable fuels.”

Jill Euken, deputy director of the Bioeconomy Institute, handles the advanced biofuel outreach efforts, and said rural Iowa would greatly benefit from an increase use the biofuel.

“Corn prices will continue to slip, we will have to export more ethanol, we’ll lose job opportunities,” said Euken, who has a farm herself south of Atlantic, IA. “It’s just a really sad situation. If there is an adjustment on all these scales, we will have definitely lost a lot of jobs, and not improved the environment either.”

The state of Iowa has two oil companies: Byron Originals Fuel Sales and Martin Oil Company. Both companies declined to comment.

Amongst the uncertainty with the fate of the EPA proposal, Euken said some of the Iowa community has mixed feelings about promises made from the EPA.

“They’ve never changed a draft rule before, so if they did that it would go against the precedent,” she said. “If they are going to change it, that could take months, but we’re slightly optimistic that it will change.”

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