UIS researchers’ efforts to remove carbon dioxide from the atmosphere

An Iowa State University research group that helped develop a demonstration pyrolyzer capable of sequestering thousands of tons of carbon dioxide per year has received an estimated milestone award from XPRIZE Carbon Removal.

Biochar produced from the pyrolysis of corn stalks. Researchers at Iowa State University are working to make pyrolysis a key approach to removing carbon dioxide from the atmosphere to help fight climate change. Image credit: Institute of Bioeconomy.

Milestone award provides $1 million to the Bioeconomy Institute’s Carbon Removal Group to help advance its perception of using pyrolysis to remove carbon dioxide, a greenhouse gas major collected in the air, thus delaying climate change.

Additionally, the Carbon Removal Team is vying for an even bigger prize from XPRIZE of up to $50 million to be announced in 2025. XPRIZE declared 15 milestone awards on Friday to coincide with Earth Day.

This helps pick the winners from 1,133 teams seeking to fight climate change by determining new approaches to removing greenhouse gases from the air.

Robert Brown, Iowa State Anson Marston Professor Emeritus of Engineering, Gary and Donna Hoover Professor of Mechanical Engineering, and co-director of the Iowa State Bioeconomy Institute, said the landmark award confirms that the research team’s method of carbon sequestration centers on a process called pyrolysis.

During pyrolysis, biomass is heated in the absence of oxygen, providing a carbon-rich material called biochar, known as charcoal. Brown and his research team have shown that biochar is an efficient method of storing carbon in soil. It’s a practice called sequestration, which keeps carbon out of the air.

How Pyrolysis Sequesters Carbon

As part of photosynthesis, plants extract carbon dioxide from the air to produce biomass. But this carbon storage is often temporary. When plants die and decompose, they release this stored carbon back into the air.

At the Institute of Bioeconomy, the decarbonation team uses biomass collected from wood, crop residues and perennial grasses as stocks for pyrolysis while the plant matter still seems carbon-rich. The biochar resulting from the process could be added to agricultural fields, gardens or yards as a soil amendment improving soil health and further increasing carbon storage potential.

Additionally, pyrolysis produces a thick, viscous liquid called bio-oil, which could be refined into renewable diesel fuel or bio-asphalt. It is an alternative to petroleum-based asphalt.

Currently, Iowa State consists of two pyrolyzers, a lab-scale unit located at the Biorenewables Research Lab campus, and a larger pilot unit at the BioCentury research farm outside Ames.

The Carbon Removal Team worked with Iowa-based Stine Seed Company and Frontline Bioenergy to build a demonstration-scale pyrolyzer near Redfield, Iowa, northwest of Des Moines.

The new pyrolyzer is to be commissioned this summer and will be able to capture and sequester the corresponding more than 1,000 tonnes of carbon dioxide per year. It was this scale that helped the band qualify for the XPRIZE award.

ISU researchers have developed an approach to make the new pyrolyzer self-heating, improving its environmental performance and cost-effectiveness. This so-called “auto-thermal pyrolyzer” works by pumping a small amount of air into the reactor. This causes partial oxidation of some of the pyrolysis products and release of heat.

Pyrolysis requires energy to heat the biomass, but we are now able to self-heat the process.

Robert Brown, Iowa State Anson Marston Distinguished Professor, Engineering, Bioeconomy Institute, Iowa State University

About the $100 Million XPRIZE Carbon Elimination

XPRIZE, a non-profit hosting competition intended to spur technological advancement to help humanity and seeks to reward inventive solutions to global challenges. XPRIZE has declared a purse of $100 million. This is the largest incentive prize in history, rewarding effective methods of carbon removal. This was financially supported by Elon Musk and the Musk Foundation.

The winning entrant must demonstrate solutions capable of removing carbon dioxide directly from the air or oceans at a scale of at least 1,000 tonnes per year. Additionally, participants must model their fees and illustrate a chance to scale their method to gigatonnes of carbon storage in the coming days.

XPRIZE will distribute a grand prize of $50 million to the top entrant, as well as additional prizes of $30 million to other groups. It is an acknowledgment that it will likely take a range of carbon removal methods to avert an impending climate crisis.

Even if we make heroic efforts to reduce global greenhouse gas emission rates, we will still exceed the targets needed to avoid significant climate impacts.. We need to look for solutions that actively remove carbon dioxide from the atmosphere. We believe that pyrolysis will be one of these solutions.

Robert Brown, Iowa State Anson Marston Distinguished Professor, Engineering, Bioeconomy Institute, Iowa State University

Innovation at work: Can pyrolysis generate income and increase farmers’ yields?

Video credit: Iowa State University.

Source: https://www.iastate.edu/

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