Iowa State University develops biorefinery simulation program

By Erin Voegele | April 20, 2011

A new simulation program developed at Iowa State University allows students to gain hands-on experience running a biorefinery. The Interactive Biorefinery Operations Simulator (I-BOS), which is modeled after real biodiesel and ethanol plants in Iowa, operates like a flight simulator.

According to David Grewell, an ISU associate professor who led development of the I-BOS system, the simulation program is more than a computer program. Rather, the system has been built into an actual control room modeled after the ones at Lincolnway Energy LLC’s Nevada, Iowa-based ethanol plant and a local Renewable Energy Group Inc. biodiesel plant.

“What we’ve tried to do is make this is feel like we are in that [plant] environment,” Grewell said. “The layout is very similar, the monitors are similar, the software is similar, the way the alarms interact and the way you interface with the software is similar.” The simulation control room at ISU even includes a security video loop of feedstock offloading that is synchronized with the software.

The program has taken more than two years to develop. “We’re still working out some of the final bugs,” Grewell said, but the system is up and running. The system currently models ethanol production from corn and biodiesel production from either soy or tallow. Each feedstock has approximately 20 attributes that can be altered to provide students with actual situations they are likely to experience at a real biorefinery. For example, Grewell can alter the moisture content or contamination level of the feedstock entering the simulated plant, which will require students to take remedial actions as they work through the simulation.

While the system is currently focused on biodiesel and ethanol production, Grewell said that the I-BOS can be upgraded in the future to address other biorefinery systems, such as cellulosic biofuel production. “The way we designed it, we had that in the back of our minds,” he said. “It’s all based on unit operations,” which can be reconfigured and altered to model other biorefinery systems.

The I-BOS system will be integrated into a biorenewables technology class. “The thrust of this class will be to put students in this room…running this system,” Grewell said. “I can send text messages to the system from my iPhone and cause things to go wrong. I can start a fire in a distillation column, or have a bad load of corn show up. The students will have to respond to [those problems] and they get graded on how fast they respond.” The program also keeps track of how much energy is used during a simulation. If students forget to turn off motors or are wasteful with energy use, the I-BOS system will track that.

According to Grewell, the most significant benefit of the I-BOS system is that provides an interactive learning tool for students. “It’s so much better to engage students through an interactive system than it is to just do a standard lecture,” he said. In addition, the I-BOS provides students with immediate feedback on their performance.

In addition to the simulated control room that has been developed on campus, Grewell said a version of the I-BOS will also be available online for people to download and use. While it doesn’t offer quite the same experience as the on-campus training, he said it has been designed to be useful for biorefining companies that want to provide their employees with existing training. The downloadable version of the program should be available online near the end of April. 

 

 
 
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