‘Nintendo for Biofuel Nerds’

Virtual biorefinery control room coming soon
By Kris Bevill | May 13, 2011

It’s the next best thing to the real thing and it’s almost ready to be put to the test. A group of students and researchers at Iowa State University, led by agricultural and biosystems engineering associate professor David Grewell, has designed a virtual biorefinery control room that lets users experiment with new feedstocks and technologies, as well as gain experience with the daily operations of a plant, complete with realistic emergencies. The Interactive Biorefinery Operations Simulator, or I-BOS, has been under development for almost three years and should be available for widespread use by September. The USDA, Renewable Energy Group Inc., Lincolnway Energy LLC, Fastek International Ltd., Crown Iron Works Co. and Emerson Electric Co. all contributed to the $300,000 project.

Grewell, who calls the virtual control room “Nintendo for biofuel nerds,” says the simulator is based on existing Iowa ethanol and biodiesel facilities. The program will be used this fall by students in a biorenewables technology class at the university to train them on production processes and plant emergency procedures “before they get to play with the real expensive toys,” he says.

Because the USDA is a sponsor of the project, it will be made available to all U.S. producers at no cost. Grewell says the application will be made available for downloading through a website so that producers can train their employees or test new technologies and feedstocks. Given enough information—results from pilot-scale testing for example—the program could even be used to determine the feasibility of newly developed technologies and/or feedstocks. “Everything is based on fundamentals, so if we put a new feedstock in there, we have to have an understanding of what happens to it as we send it through pre-treatment,” he says. “Whether you’re doing something like an ammonia steeping process or a hot water treatment for switchgrass, for example, we would have to know what happens and be able to characterize those.” 

The industry has supported the research project because it will increase the productivity of biorefineries, Grewell says, adding that workers will be better trained with less on-the-job training required. By late April, Grewell said he was already swamped with requests from producers interested in both the training aspects and the technology testing abilities of the program.  —Kris Bevill