Iowa State University researchers are working to improve a process that could make the production of ethanol cheaper by cutting the use of natural gas from the process. Researchers say natural gas is the second largest expense in the ethanol process behind the corn.

I-S-U Mechanical Engineering professor Ted Heindel, says they’re helping an Ames company develop a renewable and cost effective alternative to natural gas. He says they’re working with “Frontline BioEnergy” which designs “fluidized bed gassifiers” that are used to gasify biomaterial into a gas that can be burned in the place of natural gas.

Heindel says the gassifiers can turn some common waste materials into burnable gas. Heindel says the biomass could be corn stalks, or corn stover, or distillers dried grains that are a byproduct of ethanol production, or it could be switchgrass. Heindel says the use of the alternative gas has several benefits.

Heindel says it’s cheaper and they’re using a renewable resource, which in some cases is just waste material with a low value. Heindel says he’s working with three colleagues to refine the process that creates the alternative gas.

Heindel says they’re looking at how the gas is mixed in the fluidized bed and how it travels. Heindel says they can use the specialized equipment at Iowa State to study the process and help make it better. One estimate says Iowa’s annual production of more than one billion gallons of ethanol accounts for about 16 percent of the state’s demand for natural gas.