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WSU’s On Solid Ground: Bio-oil, Hoppiness, High-tech meets wheat, Sustaining agriculture

Posted by | June 13, 2014

Biofuel technology goes mobile

If you’ve ever enjoyed the summertime taste of fish, chicken or steak grilled over charcoal, you have benefited from pyrolysis. The very same technology that produces charcoal is also a cornerstone for making the vision of a commercial, wood-based biofuels industry in the Pacific Northwest a reality.

Scientists like Manuel Garcia-Perez and his graduate students, who study biosystems engineering at WSU, are helping to nurture the emerging biofuels industry by developing pyrolysis technologies.

Woodchips (left) are processed in the mobile pyrolysis unit to become biochar (middle) and bio-oil (right). Photo by Waled Suliman, WSU.
Woodchips (left) are processed in the mobile pyrolysis unit to become biochar (middle) and bio-oil (right).
Photo by Waled Suliman, WSU.

Through pyrolysis, biomass like wood, grass, and other organic material is exposed to high temperatures in the absence of oxygen. The result is bio-oil, a precursor to biofuel, as well as other useful products like charcoal, or biochar.

“The low-hanging fruit for commercializing the technology to convert biomass to energy comes from sources like construction debris, for example, that are concentrated in one location,” Garcia-Perez said. “But in cases where the biomass is spread out over a large region, as with forestry waste, transportation to a processing facility can be expensive.”

Pyrolysis road show

One solution the wood fuels industry is exploring is the development of mobile pyrolysis units, or reactors, which can process the raw material right where it’s collected in the forest before transporting the resulting bio-oil to a refinery.

Nine WSU graduate students in Garcia-Perez’s lab were invited to share their knowledge of pyrolysis and evaluate the products of two different mobile pyrolysis units developed by Amaron Energy and Western Renewable Technologies during a recent demonstration in Bingen, Washington. The Washington State Department of Natural Resources sponsored the event in order to offer the public and industry a chance to learn about the technology.

In addition to providing background and sharing information about their research projects with more than 120 visitors, the students also collected samples of the bio-oil and biochar for testing back at the lab in Pullman, Washington. How much oil versus biochar did the two units produce? What was the quality of the products, how did the two units compare in terms of pollution? They will share these answers with the Department of Natural Resources and the two companies later this year.

Students, society benefit

In one day, the students collected bio-oil and biochar samples that would otherwise take days or weeks to produce in a lab. Perhaps more valuable, however, was the opportunity for students to meet people in the industry who build pyrolysis systems as well as policymakers who are interested in how the technology might serve society.

“Because we’re usually working on our projects in the lab, it’s hard to get perspective of what the industry wants,” said Brennan Pecha, a doctoral student in Garcia-Perez’s lab. “It was really nice to get a feel for who is actually producing reactors and using research like ours.”

The mobile technology shows promise but Garcia-Perez cautions that it’s not a solution for all types of biomass and situations. Although the mobile units are much larger than those Garcia-Perez has in his lab, their size is a limiting factor for achieving an economy of scale. Another limitation is that the technology to refine bio-oil is not yet at a stage where it is ready for commercialization.

But Garcia-Perez remains hopeful. Ultimately, a wood-based biofuels industry is intended to reduce our reliance on fossil fuels. And when used as a soil amendment in agriculture, biochar can help reduce greenhouse gas emissions by sequestering carbon in the soil.

“Mobile pyrolysis units are not yet commercially viable and the technology to refine bio-oil is still developing, but it has the potential to be a great benefit to society,” he said.

—Sylvia Kantor

To each their own beer

Hops growing on the vine. Photo by Gnel Gabrielyan.
Hops growing on the vine. Photo by Gnel Gabrielyan.

A team of sensory scientists and agricultural economists have concluded that consumers are willing to pay more for overall taste and hoppiness of beer that meets their personal preferences.

In fact, up to 44 cents to the dollar. The study, published in the journal Agricultural and Resource Economics Review evaluated consumer willingness-to-pay for five different sensory properties.

“Industry-wise, microbrewers can benefit from this because they can charge premium prices for the beer that consumers like,” said Gnel Gabrielyan, a doctoral candidate in the WSU School of Economic Sciences. “If they create a flavor or taste that consumers appreciate, they can charge a higher price.”

The four beers (IPAs and honey ales) used in the study were brewed from four varieties of hops grown  in Washington. The Evergreen State produces more than 80 percent of the nation’s hops, and is second only to Germany in worldwide hop production.

In addition to sensory properties, the study results also revealed several demographic and social influences:

  • Consumers with higher incomes are willing to pay more for beer.
  • Consumers who drink the same beer as their friends–frequently–are willing to pay more.
  • People who drink mostly at home pay less for beer.
  • As consumers get older, they are less likely to pay more for beer.

Future research will focus on how different fertilizer applications and irrigation strategies to grow hops influence flavor and consumer preferences in the final product. WSU is also working with brewers to develop barley varieties that impart local flavors dialed into consumer preferences. You can learn more about the renaissance of barley in western Washington here.

This article is based on “Willingness to Pay for Sensory Attributes in Beer” by Gnel Gabrielyan, Jill McCluskey, Thomas Marsh, and Carolyn Ross.


 —Rachel Webber

High technology meets fields of wheat

Arron Carter and Mike Pumphrey are doing high-tech research that is transforming the world’s wheat supply.

“It used to be that weighing the bag (of grain) was the only way we had to evaluate a variety of wheat,” Pumphrey said. “Yield is still the bottom line, but technology gives us tools for earlier identification of what will be fruitful lines of wheat.”

Some of the technology is pretty cool. The breeders use small, unmanned, remote-control helicopters to look at crops in the field. Special cameras on board record more than the human eye can perceive.

“The cameras tell us information about photosynthesis and the water use of the plants,” Carter said. “They can even take the temperature of the plants.” More.

Sustaining the Columbia Basin’s irrigation system

Although now teenagers, while in Ephrata’s elementary school, my three daughters learned about hydropower generation, electricity and the dams owned and operated by the Grant County Public Utility District. This is good. I believe that people should know where the basics of life come from, so I would tell them at the dinner table that I was glad they were getting a good dam education. Eyes rolled. But earlier this year, when a crack appeared in Wanapum dam necessitating a 26-foot drop in the water level behind the dam, my girls knew what was at stake: the future of a unique and productive irrigation system.

My own dam education was less direct. I moved from Nebraska to Ephrata in 1999, ready to take on my new job with WSU as an agricultural systems educator “responsible for the promotion of sustainable irrigated agricultural systems.” As I contemplated how to do this, I also wondered about the sustainability of the Columbia Basin irrigation system: Was I trying to improve an agricultural system that was not going to last?

Feeling the need to feel good about my work, or face the truth that I could not feel good about it, I looked for information. A new book, “Pillar of Sand; Can the Irrigation Miracle Last?” by Sandra Postel of the Worldwatch Institute, had just come out, so I read it.

In her book, Postel points out the various reasons that irrigation systems have failed throughout history: salinity buildup, siltation from soil erosion, water scarcity due to droughts and other causes, and failure to protect and maintain irrigation infrastructure. Could one of these, I asked myself, be the downfall of our irrigated agriculture? More.
View past issues of On Solid Ground in the archives here.

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