ISU Research Team Wins Carbon Removal Award
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Leading the way in carbon removal innovations


Dr. Robert Brown

Iowa State University Bioeconomy Institute

An Iowa State University research team has received a prestigious $1 million award for its efforts to use innovative technologies to remove carbon dioxide from the atmosphere, thus slowing climate change.  

The carbon removal team at Iowa State’s Bioeconomy Institute received the Milestone Award from XPRIZE Carbon Removal competition hosted by the Musk Foundation.  Iowa State was one of 15 teams from nine countries to receive a Milestone Award — chosen from an original field of 1,133 applicants — and will be in the running for the $80 million in the next stage of the XPRIZE competition that will be announced in 2025.  

The team’s approach to carbon sequestration centers on a process known as pyrolysis. During conventional pyrolysis, biomass such as crop residue, wood or perennial grasses, is heated in the absence of oxygen, yielding a carbon-rich material known as biochar, which is a form of charcoal.  The ISU approach, known as autothermal pyrolysis, is distinguished by the admission a small amount of air to the reactor, which burns part of the biomass, providing the energy of pyrolysis without an external heat source. (Watch videos of the process here and here.)  

The biochar from pyrolysis can be added to agricultural fields, gardens or yards as a soil amendment that improves soil health and further increases carbon storage potential. As practiced by ISU, pyrolysis also produces a thick, viscous liquid known as bio-oil, which can be refined into renewable diesel fuel or bio-asphalt, a renewable substitute for petroleum-based asphalt. 

The team is led by Dr. Robert Brown, Iowa State Anson Marston Distinguished Professor in Engineering, the Gary and Donna Hoover Chair in Mechanical Engineering and co-director of Iowa State’s Bioeconomy Institute. The pyrolysis technology is one of the possibilities for developing agriculturally-based approaches to carbon dioxide removal from the atmosphere that is underway at the university’s Bioeconomy Institute.  

Insititute advances biorenewable resources 

The Bioeconomy Institute was founded in 2007 with a mission to advance the use of biorenewable resources for the production of fuels, chemicals and materials, said Dr. Brown. The institute takes a systems-wide approach to finding environmentally and economically sustainable solutions and collaborates across the university and with federal agencies. It has completed more than $50 million in grants and contracts in the last five years. 

“The institute operates outside of traditional academic departments and colleges, reporting directly to the Vice President of Research at Iowa State.  This encourages collaboration across disciplines, helping us broaden our perspective on research problems and easing the process of building interdisciplinary teams that are essential to solving problems in regenerative agriculture and bioenergy,” he said.  

The unique resources of the Bioeconomy Institute include the Biorenewables Research Laboratory building on campus, which is a 70,000 square foot facility housing state-of-the art equipment, collaboration space and labs for industry interactions. Iowa State’s off-campus BioCentury Research Farm is the first-in-the-nation integrated research and demonstration facility for biomass production and processing, which houses the institute’s pilot-scale systems.  

Advantageous Iowa resources and connections 

Iowa State’s team was eligible for the XPRIZE award because of the scale of its project, which includes a lab-scale pyrolyzer in the Biorenewables Research Laboratory and a larger pilot-scale unit at the BioCentury Research Farm. A new privately financed demonstration-scale pyrolyzer near Redfield, Iowa, is slated to come online this summer.  The new unit will be capable of capturing and sequestering the equivalent of over 1,000 tons of carbon dioxide a year and was built in partnership with Iowa-based Stine Seed Company and Frontline Bioenergy. 

Iowa’s combination of rich natural resources, strong agriculture and manufacturing industries, along with its favorable business environment and initiatives to support renewable energies, provide an advantage for researchers and organizations developing the next generation of technologies to address climate change and other challenges.  

“As I meet people from across the U.S., there is an expectation that the state of Iowa will lead in the development of practices and technologies that advance agriculture, biofuels, and biomass-based carbon dioxide removal,” said Brown.  

Published May 2022. 

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