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Innovations at the Epicenter of the Food, Energy, and Water Nexus

David Laird
Iowa State University

The Pyrolysis-Bioenergy-Biochar (PBB) platform is a key systems-technology innovation that is targeted at the epicenter of the Food-Energy-Water Nexus. Use of the biochar co-product of fast pyrolysis as a soil amendment sequesters carbon and improves the ability of sandy and otherwise degraded soils to retain plant available water and nutrients, thereby increasing water use efficiency and crop productivity.  Growth of a biochar industry, however, is currently limited by biochar diversity and a lack of understanding of complex soil-biochar-crop-climate-management interactions.  To address this problem, agronomists at Iowa State University have developed and are currently validating and calibrating a biochar module within the APSIM cropping systems model.  The model facilitates system level research and an ability to predict agronomic and environmental outcomes.  Bio-oil, the primary energy co-product of fast pyrolysis, can be hydrotreated and then refined to produce diesel and other high value products; however, without carbon credits bio-oil is not currently competitive with petroleum.  To find a vanguard market for bio-oil, engineers at Iowa State University have developed a solid fuel known as LignocolTM from bio-oil, which can directly displace coal in existing coal fired power plants helping these plants meet US-EPA CO2 emissions limits proposed under the Clean Air Act. Iowa State University engineers are also performing technoeconomic and lifecycle assessments of pyrolysis systems to determine the optimum scale and both economic and environmental viability of fast pyrolysis plants. And, economists at Iowa State University are assessing global and regional impacts of a distributed PBB system including potential impacts on the price of food and energy and greenhouse gas emissions, which may be influenced by indirect land use changes. The comprehensive biochar-bioenergy research program at Iowa State University is designed to build a path towards global commercialization with optimum impacts on food, energy, and water security.


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