ExxonMobil, Iowa State partner for new biofuels research program

Erin Weirup

Representatives from ExxonMobil and Iowa State met to talk about the new ExxonMobil Biofuels research program being implemented here at Iowa State.

Juan Proano Aviles, a graduate student in mechanical engineering and Robert Brown, director of the ExxonMobil Biofuels program, discussed the details with the ExxonMobil representatives.

The ExxonMobile Biofuels program will focus on two separate projects. The two studies are associated with the fast pyrolysis of biomass which is the process of rapidly heating biomass without oxygen to create liquid bio-oil.

Researchers can use corn stalks, grass, wood chips and other agricultural waste products in the process. This new refinement process would be an upgrade from the current process of traditional transportation fuels and chemicals.

“We control the heat to engineer the process in order to produce more of a target product,” Aviles said.

Aviles is just one of the graduate students working on the lab and pilot scales of the research program hoping to use this project as his dissertation in the next two years.

“This project is tiny in size but has the potential for a huge impact,” Aviles said. “We are on the edge of our field and have the opportunity to use state-of-the-art technology as a student, plus the addition of having the project supported my ExxonMobile allows for more in-depth research opportunity.”

Although ExxonMobile is providing some resources, Aviles said students are one of the projects most valuable assets.

“The students bring creativity and new perspective to the techniques that ExxonMobile already offers,” Aviles said. “It’s cool to combine old practices with new ideas.”

Brown said the Biorenewables Research Laboratory was definitely a selling point to ExxonMobile when they were selecting a facility for their program. The complex was finished in 2010 and houses agriculture and bio systems as close partners with this project. The separate interdisciplinary programs being in the same vicinity help provide resources for students.

This program is good not only for the students that are involved, but for every student at Iowa State. Brown said the project is another reason to see how much the state of Iowa has to offer, the potential, and high value applications of resources to contribute to the economy.

“It validates work in this field that Iowa State has done for years,” Brown said.

ExxonMobile is the largest publicly traded international oil and gas company. The project is seen as a milestone for Iowa State and the credibility of it’s programs.

“In essence, it is a powerhouse of a learning experience working alongside the professionals and experts from ExxonMobile,” Aviles said.