One of the biggest problems facing biorefinery operations is the flow of biomass into and throughout facilities. Lignocellulosic biomass — often made up of post-harvest agricultural materials such as corn stover and soybean hulls — can accumulate and compact while moving through augers. Such blockages force costly refinery shutdowns for cleaning and repairs. A team led by Purdue University scientists will receive a $1.8 million grant from the U.S. Department of Energy’s Bioenergy Technologies Office to solve that problem.

The goal is to transform solid biomass into a slurry that can act more like a liquid flowing freely through material transportation systems in biorefineries. To do that, the researchers will create models to predict the physical properties — particle shape, size and surface charge — necessary for a liquid-like flow of solid materials.

The researchers intend to create regime maps for robust operation that would show how to adjust screw feeder and reactor operating parameters in response to measured biomass characteristics, says Carl Wassgren, a Purdue professor of mechanical engineering. He adds, using such tools, the biorefinery can avoid blockages in the inlet portion.

The scientists also anticipate developing methods for modifying the biomass to meet the models’ specifications, changing particle size, shape and charge. They will initially focus on technologies for corn stover before developing similar methods for other biomass products such as wood chips, soybean hulls, wheat straw and sugarcane.

Researchers from Purdue’s Departments of Agricultural and Biological Engineering, Mechanical Engineering, Materials Engineering, Discovery Park Energy Center, the Laboratory of Renewable Resources Engineering (LORRE), and the Center for Particulate Products and Processes (CP3) will work with scientists from Argonne National Laboratory and Idaho National Laboratory, as well as industry partners Forest Concepts and AdvanceBio Systems. The funding, which will amount to $2.3 million total with cost share from partners, will cover three years.