Waste-to-fuel machine near market-ready

By early December, most farmers are stowing away their equipment and watching the market prices for the return on a fruitful season.

Chemical Engineering professor Franco Berruti speaks about potential uses for farm waste. Using a mobile pyrolysis unit developed with colleague Cedric Briens, Berruti can convert leftovers from crops into fuels, food additives and pharmaceuticals.

With a little engineering – make that a lot of creative engineering – University of Western Ontario professor Franco Berruti hopes to extend the harvest season.

At a public lecture last week, the professor of Chemical Engineering described a process which he, along with colleague Cedric Briens, developed to break down organic material, such as corn stalks or wood, into useful fuels in a matter of seconds – a process which would take nature millions of years.

And with the help of university spin-off company Agri-Therm Ltd., Berruti will begin to commercialize the technology in 2009.

This means that farming doesn’t have to stop once crops are taken off the fields; there is money to be found in what is left behind.

“For thousands of years we have used biomass for foods, but even when you use biomass, there is waste,” he says. “Our interest is to take the waste from the food products … and look at the opportunities.”

Unlike other biofuel initiatives such as corn to ethanol for mixing with gasoline, Western’s system does not convert food products into fuel – only waste.

Berruti has been instrumental in developing the mobile pyrolysis unit, a machine that chemically breaks down biomass (the non-edible constituents of farm waste) using heat, but in the absence of oxygen. This unit can be taken to farms during harvesting season to convert the so-called ‘waste’ of stalks and leftover organic materials into gases, liquids and a solid residue.

Once broken down, biomass produces bio oil, bio gas, bio-char (which includes many minerals and can be used for fertilizer) and water. Of the most value is the bio oil, which Berruti describes as “a big soup of interesting chemicals” that can be used for fuels, food additives and pharmaceuticals.

The unit has been used to process tobacco, wood, corn and distillers grains byproducts in Canada.
It can also be used to convert the processing residues from apples, flax, grapes and coffee grounds, as well as sugarcane, rice straw and coffee husks.

The unit is self-sustaining and does not require non-renewable resources to operate, he adds.

One key advantage of using farm waste as a raw material is that the process doesn’t pose any competition for food resources.
Also, ethanol requires the use non-renewable energy from the fuel for the farm machinery used to plant, maintain and harvest the crop, transportation and to process corn into ethanol.

“Ethanol from corn is not very renewable because of all the energies that go into growing it,” he says.

Because of the seasonal nature of each crops’ growing season, Berruti hopes to distribute mobile pyrolysis units to agricultural communities to harvest the so-call ‘leftovers’ of organ