Higher education

Iowa State tapped for federal energy initiative

(File Photo) A student walks past the Campanile on the Iowa State University campus in Ames on Tuesday, Mar. 31, 2015. (
(File Photo) A student walks past the Campanile on the Iowa State University campus in Ames on Tuesday, Mar. 31, 2015. (Stephen Mally/The Gazette)

The federal government once again is tapping Iowa State University’s expertise as it launches a new manufacturing institute expected to leverage up to $140 million in funding for more than $9 billion in annual savings.

The U.S. Department of Energy earlier this month announced plans to commit as much as $70 million over five years toward the nation’s 10th Manufacturing USA Institute, which will focus on improving the productivity and efficiency of chemical manufacturing.

The new institute will go by the name RAPID, or Rapid Advancement in Process Intensification Deployment, and will unite experts in the field — including those at Iowa State. Leaders expect another $70 million from collaborators, including businesses, universities, laboratories, and other organizations.

The combined funds will enable researchers to “focus on developing breakthrough technologies to boost domestic energy productivity and energy efficiency by 20 percent in five years through manufacturing processes in industries such as oil and gas, pulp and paper, and various domestic chemical manufacturers,” according to the U.S. Office of Energy Efficiency and Renewable Energy.

Chemical manufacturing traditionally relies on large and energy-intensive processing, while the new institution will strive for “chemical process intensification,” like combining multiple, complex processes like mixing, reaction, and separation into one single step.

The U.S. Department of Energy anticipates annual savings through improved productivity, reduced costs, and less waste could top $9 billion for the chemical industry.

Robert C. Brown, director of ISU’s Bioeconomy Institute and engineering professor, said in a news release the institute will “take technologies — ideas that are well beyond basic research — and translate them into workable processes that can be demonstrated in the field.”

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Iowa State researchers have been tasked with managing the project’s biorefinery efforts, because, according to RAPID’s chief executive officer Karen Fletcher, the university has “an extremely talented and well-known team that’s highly regarded in the industry.”

Brown will lead RAPID’s “distributed biorefinery” program, and Fletcher said during a recent tour of Iowa State’s BioCentury Research Farm that ISU’s team already has pulled together partners interested in commercializing distributed biorefineries.

“We can make big leaps with shared funding instead of small steps with individual projects,” Fletcher said, according to the news release. “We’re very focused on the commercial value of this work, and Iowa State gets that.”

The RAPID proposal, led by the American Institute of Chemical Engineers in New York City, includes $8 million for development and testing of biorefineries designed to facilitate manufacturing and mass production.

Although still subject to negotiation with the Department of Energy, one possible project highlighted in the RAPID application is a “pyrolysis-based modular energy production system” for converting waste and biomass into fuels, chemicals and other products.

That project has support from Easy Energy Systems of Emmetsburg, as well as the State of Iowa, Stine Seed Co. of Adel, and the Iowa Energy Center. This comes along with $3.2 million from the U.S. energy department.

Another possible project highlighted in the application involves “anaerobic digestion of grassy biomass and wet wastes to convert waste biomass into carbon-neutral fuels and chemicals.” That work has $4 million in support from the energy department, along with backing from a variety of national partners, including ISU and the Iowa Energy Center.

Although Brown said both projects are subject to final approval, he believes they’re good candidates to move forward.

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“We believe these projects fit the institute well and can every quickly advance,” he said in a news release. “These are also projects that will be developed at a scale that addresses the commercially significant issues.”

When announcing the up to $140 million investment, David Friedman, acting assistant secretary of the Department of Energy’s Office of Energy Efficiency and Renewable Energy, said he expects the work will “unleash major savings in energy-intensive sectors.”

“As we expand the Manufacturing USA network, we provide greater opportunities for businesses of all sizes to solve their toughest technology challenges,” Friedman said.

Iowa State is or has been involved in other Department of Energy projects, including one unveiled in the spring, when the government dedicated $40 million to the Energy Materials Network initiative.

As part of that enterprise, the U.S. Department of Energy chose The Ames Laboratory on the ISU campus to conduct groundbreaking refrigeration research.

The Ames Lab, which is government-owned and contractor-operated, is leading the project’s “Caloric Cooling Consortium,” focused on developing innovative cooling technologies.

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