BioSTEAM software used to analyse economics of biofuels and bioproducts

Researchers at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign have developed an open-source simulation software package that can be used to analyse the economics of biofuels and bioproducts.

Known as BioSTEAM, the new software package in Python can be used by scientists, engineers, biotechnology companies and funding agencies as a quick and flexible tool to analyse the economics of producing different types of biofuel and bioproducts.

The Biorefinery Simulation and Techno-Economic Analysis Modules (BioSTEAM) will help researchers compare and prioritise strategies for converting biomass into fuels and other products, in a matter of seconds. It also generates data that can be used to evaluate the environmental impact of biorefineries, including greenhouse gas emissions.

Results of the research project, which was led by Yoel Cortes-Pena, a National Science Foundation graduate research fellow and PhD candidate in the Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering, alongside his advisor associate professor Jeremey Guest, were published in the journal ACS Sustainable Chemistry & Engineering.

"Understanding the economic and environmental implications of technology is particularly helpful early in the development pipeline, so we can prioritize research and development in directions that can be most impactful," Cortes-Pena said.

Techno-economic analysis (TEA) can offer critical information on the economic viability, technological challenges and venture risk of producing biofuels and bioproducts. This usually requires specialised researchers and can be a time-consuming and expensive process.

"It can take months to do an analysis of a single design for a single idea, and after that the analytical tools are still only accessible to researchers who specialize in techno-economic analysis," Guest explained.

While these evaluations may fail to consider technological, environmental, and market-driven uncertainties, BioSTEAM provides the building blocks to simulate a biorefinery. Moreover, its flexible framework allows for design, simulation and TEA that incorporates uncertainties as a key feature.

Using BioSTEAM to model the co-production of biodiesel and ethanol from oil, cane, and the production of second-generation ethanol from corn stover, the researchers demonstrated that “a key driver of fuel costs is the size of the biorefinery, in particular how much corn stover it processes,” according to Guest. The larger the facility, the lower the per-gallon cost.

In the example, BioSTEAM was able to evaluate 31,000 different biorefinery designs across a continuum of feedstock compositions, in less than 50 minutes.

By using the new software, anyone can design a biorefinery and simulate it. Guest continued: "But it's also set up so that each time we write the code for a new biorefinery, that code can be made publicly available. Anyone working on those types of technologies can go in and easily change the scenario and explore the data for themselves.”

The ultimate goal of the project is to make TEA more available to researchers who want to improve feedstocks or develop new conversion technologies to produce new biofuels. "The intent here is to expedite innovation," Guest said, "and more quickly get concepts to deployment to bring down the cost of biofuels so they are more financially viable and environmentally sustainable."

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