NETL Multiphase Flow Researchers to Work with Biomass Feedstock-Conversion Consortia to Aid Energy-Producing Biorefineries

NETL is bringing uncommon skills, equipment, analysis and communication tools to the work of a national laboratory consortia working to understand and improve how biomass feedstock integrates with combustion processes in biorefineries.

NETL Director Brian Anderson, Ph.D., announced that the Laboratory, one of 17 Department of Energy (DOE) national laboratories, has officially joined the DOE Biomass Energy Technology Office’s Feedstock-Conversion Interface Consortia Research program. Other consortia members include Argonne, Sandia, Los Alamos, Berkeley, Idaho, National Renewable Energy, Oak Ridge, and the Pacific Northwest national laboratories.

According to DOE, a feedstock is any renewable, biological material that can be used directly as a fuel or converted to another form of fuel or energy product. Biomass feedstocks are the plant and algal materials that can be used to create fuels like ethanol, butanol, biodiesel, and other hydrocarbon fuels. Biomass feedstocks include corn starch, sugarcane juice, crop residues such as corn and sugarcane bagasse, purpose-grown grass crops, and woody plants. They are considered renewable resources.

A biorefinery is a facility that processes biological material like crop waste to produce fuel, electricity, and commercially useful chemicals. Research is needed to reduce variabilities in the developing biomass industry to produce consistent, quality-controlled products that can be efficiently handled, stored, transported, and used by biorefineries — activity that requires efficient feedstock supply interfaces and logistics.

NETL’s Bill Rogers explained that one of the bottlenecks hindering additional development of the bioenergy industry is finding the best ways to handle and process feedstocks, specifically as they are fed into the conversion process, and the operation of conversion equipment.

“This is referred to as the feedstock-conversion interface and can contribute to problematic operation of the Integrated biorefineries,” Rogers said. “NETL’s Computational Device Engineering team will now be a part of the consortia’s multi-year program to quantify, understand, and manage variabilities in biomass from the field through downstream conversion and then understand how feedstock composition, structure, and behavior impacts system performance.”

Rogers explained that NETL is uniquely qualified to perform the research because of its expertise in multiphase flow science — the study and understanding of the flow of liquid or solid materials with different chemical properties. NETL’s wide-ranging work in multiphase flow science has included in-depth studies on energy and environmental applications like gasification, carbon capture using solvents, and chemical-looping combustion of gaseous and solid fuels. The Lab’s research has also supported DOE’s Office of Environmental Management for analysis of environmental remediation of radioactive wastes.

NETL’s role will be to develop and apply a detailed reactor model to generate an operational map that accurately captures how biomass feedstock variability affects reactor performance. It is important work because nearly 75 percent of the manufacturing costs of products is committed at the conceptual design stage. Computational models like those NETL can create are used to make simulations that help decision makers understand performance before the designs are finalized, reducing costs.

“There’s a critical need for science-based models with quantified uncertainty for reducing costs and times required for development of new energy processes,” Rogers said. “That’s where NETL comes in. Our strategic combination of computational and physical models represents validated science-based modeling tools that will be important to the work of the consortia.”

A key tool in NETL’s arsenal is its Multiphase Flow with Interphase eXchanges (MFiX) — an open-source software program with more than 5.000 registered users worldwide that is the standard for comparing, implementing, and evaluating multiphase flow models. In its decades of development history, MFiX has helped make significant advances in multiphase flow technologies in the energy industry. More information about NETL’s MFiX is available here.

NETL produces technological solutions for America’s energy challenges. From developing creative innovations and efficient energy systems that make coal more competitive, to advancing technologies that enhance oil and natural gas extraction and transmission processes, NETL research is providing breakthroughs and discoveries that support domestic energy initiatives, stimulate a growing economy, and improve the health, safety, and security of all Americans. Highly skilled men and women at three NETL research sites – Albany, Oregon; Morgantown, West Virginia; and Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania – conduct a broad range of research activities that support DOE’s mission to advance the national, economic, and energy security of the United States.