For 30 years, researchers at SyracuseCoE academic Partner SUNY College of Environmental Science and Forestry (ESF) have studied new forms of renewable energy. In the Department of Paper and Bioprocess Engineering, researchers use sugars derived from willow biomass to create biofuels with very low greenhouse gas emissions that will replace their fossil fuel counterparts.
That research moved from the lab bench to production scale with the opening of the SUNY-ESF Biofuels Pilot Plant at SyracuseCoE in 2015. “We want to make the same portfolio of products you can make from fossil fuels,” says Art Stipanovic, ESF professor of chemistry and director of the Pilot Plant.
The new facility is a small-scale, commercial grade pilot plant that allows researchers to scale up the size of their production significantly, so that they can develop and demonstrate processes that will evolve into full-scale commercial production.
“Equipment like this is hard to find,” adds Thomas Amidon, professor and chair of paper and bioprocess engineering at ESF. “It’s too small for most manufacturers but too big for almost anywhere else. You’d rarely find this on a college campus.”
The Pilot Plant includes a 1000-Liter fermenter that creates an optimal environment for microorganisms to convert wood-based sugars to fuels such as ethanol and butanol, and a 30-gallon-per-hour distillation column to distill the biofuels produced in the fermenter to high purity fuels suitable for testing in engines.
The facility provides a more robust learning and research environment in a real-world setting. “The goal is to move science into a technology and then into a commercial business,” says Amidon.
That’s already happening.
New companies that have originated from ESF’s research include Avatar Sustainable Technologies, founded by Bhavin
Bhayani, Ph.D., and Bandaru V. Ramarao, professor of paper and bioprocess engineering at ESF and director of the Empire
State Paper Research Insitute.
It was during an internship at a paper mill while an ESF doctoral student that Bhayani had his aha moment. “There was a tremendous amount of paper waste that was already beaten and pulped,” he says.
Bhayani saw this cellulosic waste as a readymade option for producing the sugars needed for fermentation to biofuels. He and Ramarao, his doctoral advisor, received NYSERDA funding to develop and demonstrate the concept on a lab scale. Bhayani also won $10,000 from SyracuseCoE in Syracuse University’s RvD IDEA student competition in 2013;the award served as a catalyst to start Avatar Sustainable Technologies to commercialize its proprietary technology for producing fermentable sugars for bioproducts industries.
“Different biofuels and bio-plastics require different qualities of sugar. We’re working with people in academia, at the paper mills, and biofuels companies to make sure our processes are in alignment with their requirements,” he says.
In addition to continued use of the ESF Pilot Plant, SyracuseCoE provides the firm with office space, funding through a $25,000 Innovation Fund award, and guidance in commercialization.
“It would be very difficult to do this without the support of SyracuseCoE,” Bhayani says.