Optimizing the Location of Biofuel Production Plants

9/10/2012 11:16:00 AM

Yeh Center
Yeh Center
biofuel production plant istockphoto.com/banksphotos
biofuel production plant istockphoto.com/banksphotos
By Leanne Lucas
There are many aspects to the complex issue of biofuel production. One such aspect is the placement of biofuel production plants and the overall logistics planning. Researchers in CEE, as part of a larger project funded by the National Science Foundation, are tackling this topic, taking into account the impact production plants have on engineering infrastructure, local communities and the environment.
 
CEE Associate Professor Yanfeng Ouyang is one of nine faculty members on a multi-disciplinary team working on the project, titled Interdependence, Resilience and Sustainability of Infrastructure Systems for Biofuel Development. Their goal is to build a large-scale mathematical model that will integrate cutting-edge research efforts on agricultural, economic, transportation, water, natural resources and social issues to address the sustainability and resiliency of biofuel development.
 
“The placement of bio-refineries faces challenges at all stages of the production and logistics supply chain,” said Ouyang.
The location of biomass production is a major component of the equation, he said. Most farms produce bulky, low-density, high volume biomass which is later converted into liquid fuels. Shipment efficiency from the farm to the plant, then the plant to the pump dictates in large part where a production plant should be, he said.
 
“Plants should probably be closer to the side where shipping efficiency is not as high, in order to keep those costs as low as possible,” he said. “Usually, the shipment from the farm to the plant is the least efficient, so the plant should ideally be close to the farms. However, farms can be very scattered, and the crop yield could significantly vary, making the selection of optimal locations challenging.“
 
A second consideration is proximity to a transportation network. Land near interstate highways costs more than rural land, but transportation costs rise when plants are located in rural areas, Ouyang says. Through collaboration with CEE Professor Imad Al-Qadi, the team is exploring the effects of preserving and expanding relevant roadways or railways.
 
The availability of water is another consideration, said Ouyang. A group of researchers including CEE Associate Professor Ximing Cai, CEE Professor Murugesu Sivapalan and Professor Emeritus Gregory McIsaac of the Department of Natural Resources and Environmental Sciences is estimating the water consumption in the cultivation of agricultural energy crops, and the impact that consumption has on the water quantity and quality in that area’s watershed, Ouyang said.
 
“The fermenting and refinement process also requires a significant amount of water. Fortunately, water is abundantly available in Illinois, so that’s not usually a problem here. But it could be an issue in other states,” Ouyang said.
 
The impact a production facility will have on the local communities must also be addressed.
 
“Will the water consumption from biomass production and processing have a social, economic, environmental impact on the rest of the community?” Ouyang said.  “Will large shipments going in and out of an area change traffic conditions? How will the local government and other stakeholders view this added industry and intervene? How would the diversion of agricultural crops into energy feedstocks affect food market equilibrium and local agricultural economy?”
 
The project started in 2008 and is expected to conclude in 2013. To date, the team has published about 30 journal papers on various aspects of the project.
 
“We hope to refine a model that can be used to forecast how the biofuel industry will function most efficiently and effectively, and also assess how much impact the industry will have on other parts of society,” Ouyang said.
 
Photo: ©istockphoto.com/Banks Photos