The process dates to ancient Egypt. Now, it’s being studied here by the USDA as a way to fuel farms.
Pour a few handfuls of chopped- up corn stalks or switchgrass into a hopper. Heat rapidly. Funnel the resulting mixture through an intricate network of metal pipes and canisters.
Chemical engineer Akwasi A. Boateng holds up a sample of oil produced by the process called fast pyrolysis.
Out the other end — drip, drip — comes a thick brown liquid that looks an awful lot like oil.
Called bio oil, it is not quite the same as what comes out of a well. But it is close enough that government scientists think the process, called fast pyrolysis, is a promising way for farmers to enhance energy security.
The room-size network of pipes and canisters is a pilotscale reactor in Wyndmoor, at the eastern regional research center of the U.S. Department of Agriculture. Scientists there are confident that, with some tweaking, they can turn any “biomass” — even manure — into oil that can be refined into gasoline or diesel fuel.
“We want to engineer this for the farm,” said Akwasi A. Boateng, the chemical engineer who is leading the effort for the Agricultural Research Service.
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