Next-generation tech for biofuels refining

Smart Transfer Chutes solves a pervasive problem in the biofuel refinery industry—potentially making biofuels more affordable

March 22, 2021

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Wire diagram of Smart Chutes demonstrating the innovative functionality to actively discard problematic biomass material having high-moisture content. Jenike & Johanson

LOS ALAMOS, N.M., March 22, 2021—Helping to strengthen the economic viability of biorefineries in the production of alternative fuels derived from biomass is critical to decreasing the use of fossil fuels and mitigating carbon dioxide emissions. To that end, a collaboration between Los Alamos National Laboratory and Jenike & Johanson, a bulk solids storage company, and funded by the U.S. Department of Energy Bioenergy Technologies Office through the Feedstock-Conversion Interface Consortium, has developed new technologies, called Smart Transfer Chutes, with integrated acoustic moisture sensors that greatly improve the operational reliability of biorefineries.

“The Achilles heel of biorefineries is the operational reliability,” said Troy Semelsberger, a senior research scientist at Los Alamos National Laboratory. “Currently the operational reliability of biorefineries is estimated to be around 30 percent, meaning that for 70 percent of the year they have to stop operation. To be economically viable, the operational reliability needs to be around 90 percent. In other words, biorefineries have an efficiency problem.”

Just as fossil fuels require refineries, so do biofuels. While these integrated biorefineries process a variety of biomass materials, a major source is corn. After the edible kernels are removed, farms are left with “stover,” byproducts such as leaves and cobs. In the past, these were burned as waste. But they can also be processed into biofuels, everything from ethanol for cars to polymer additives for rubbers and chemical commodities, all of which would normally use fossil fuels.

A major issue during processing, however, has always been moisture-laden stover, which can clog conveyors and chutes that direct the material around the refinery. During a clog, the refinery needs to be stopped and that moisture-laden stover needs to be removed by hand.

Smart Transfer Chutes is eliminating these moisture-related stoppages through the use of an in-line acoustic moisture sensor capable of continuous, real-time monitoring. The acoustic moisture sensor works by directing soundwaves through the corn stover as it is being processed. If moisture contents exceed those that are known to cause stoppages, it sends a signal to another device. 

This is where the innovativeness of Jenike & Johanson comes in with their “Smart” chute technology. When the acoustic sensor deems the stover too wet to process—a possible clog risk—a computer engages a track change on the conveyor belt, redirecting it to be further dried.

“These technologies actively remove ‘monkey wrenches’ from entering the process,” Semelsberger said. “That means biofuels could soon become a cost-effective product, one that’s created from a byproduct, and that doesn’t require extracting fossil fuels.”

The Los Alamos team includes Troy A. Semelsberger, Cristian Pantea, John Greenhall, Hung Doan, and Christopher Hakoda.  The Jenike & Johanson team consists of Carrie Hartford and David Craig. 

Funding:  Part of this work was funded by U.S. Department of Energy Bioenergy Technologies Office, project number NL0034978, and managed by the Feedstock-Conversion Interface Consortium. 

About Jenike & Johanson

Jenike & Johanson is a world leader in powder and bulk solids storage, handling, conveying, and processing with over 55 years of industrial experience. They deliver engineered solutions to achieve reliable powder and bulk solids flow based on proven theories and decades of project experience. In the biomass industry specifically, they have worked on projects related to everything from wood chips to wood powder and herbaceous materials.

With their skilled, technical team of experts and industry-leading technology, they bring proven theories and decades of experience to the unique challenges with handling biomass to successfully deliver bulk material engineering solutions.

About The Feedstock-Conversion Interface Consortium

The Feedstock-Conversion Interface Consortium (FCIC) is an integrated and collaborative network of nine U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) National Laboratories dedicated to addressing the technical risks that integrated pioneer biorefineries face. The goal of the FCIC is to develop science-based knowledge and tools to understand biomass feedstock and process variability, improving overall operational reliability, conversion performance, and product quality across the biomass value chain. Learn more here.  

About the U.S. Department of Energy Bioenergy Technologies Office

The U.S. Department of Energy Office of Energy Efficiency and Renewable Energy Bioenergy Technologies Office supports groundbreaking technologies to produce fuels, products, and power from sources of biomass and waste resources. Bioenergy can help ensure an economically sound and secure future while reducing environmental impacts through developing affordable domestic fuels and co-products, advancing clean energy sources, generating domestic jobs to support the growth of the U.S. bioeconomy. Learn more here