Iowa State researchers have developed thermochemical technologies that efficiently produce sugars from biomass. (Naomi Friend/Bioeconomy Institute)
Researchers at Iowa State University think that fast pyrolysis - quickly heating biomass such as corn stalks or wood chips without oxygen to produce liquid or gas products - could be a new way to make inexpensive sugars from biomass.

That's a big deal because those sugars can be further processed into biofuels. Robert C. Brown -- an Anson Marston Distinguished Professor in Engineering, the Gary and Donna Hoover Chair in Mechanical Engineering and the Iowa Farm Bureau Director of Iowa State's Bioeconomy Institute -- and other Iowa State researchers believe pyrolysis of lignocelluslosic biomass has the potential to be the cheapest way to produce biofuels or biorenewable chemicals.

Thermochemical technologies developed by 19 Iowa State research teams include processes that: • increase the yield of sugar from fast pyrolysis of biomass with a pretreatment that neutralizes naturally occurring alkali that otherwise interferes with the release of sugars • prevent burning of sugar released during pyrolysis by rapidly transporting it out of the hot reaction zone • recover sugar from the heavy end of bio-oil that has been separated into various fractions • separate sugars from the heavy fractions of bio-oil using a simple water-washing process.

"The Department of Energy has been working for 35 years to get sugar out of biomass," Brown said. "Most of the focus has been on use of enzymes, which remains extremely expensive. What we've developed is a simpler method based on the heating of biomass."

(Iowa State University)