Like many visionaries before him, all Shaobo Deng needed was an idea and a quiet space to explore his innovation.
“Some of us go golfing, Shaobo plays with stuff he can find and sees what he can do with it,” says Deng’s colleague, University of Minnesota professor Forrest Izuno.
Deng’s scientific imagination could be a boon for Minnesota’s farmers, the state’s agriculture economy and the nation’s biodiesel industry. In his office at the University of Minnesota Southern Research and Outreach Center in Waseca, Deng developed a new technology – a liquid phase plasma discharge – that has the potential to drastically reduce the energy consumption and cost of biodiesel production.
“As what always happens with these things, you have the academic side, and you have the side where there’s a guy who’s read everything on the subject, who’s dabbled on the fringes and all the sudden there’s an ‘Aha!’ moment,” says Izuno, head of the Outreach Center. “That was Shaobo. Plasma in the liquid phase has always been a passion of his, and he found a way to make it happen.”
Deng’s liquid plasma technology has potential for abroad range of applications, such as water treatment, food process and more. Currently, it can be used for feed stocks, recycled waste cooking oils and animal fats to produce biodiesel without employing high-temperature processes.
“Using plasma versus standard biodiesel is a tremendous energy savings,” Izuno says. “It’s extremely flexible and has a very small footprint.”
Minnesota Soybean Research & Promotion Council CEO Tom Slunecka and his colleagues first learned of Deng’s brainchild in the back corner of the Waseca lab several years ago. When Slunecka saw the technology, he had his own ‘Aha!’ moment.
“During a routine visit to the Research Center in Waseca, we were introduced to Shaobo’s small bench scale set-up,” Slunecka says. “Realizing its raw potential – that it could produce six gallons of biodiesel per hour – we formulated a research plan and brought in a team of farmers to review the project to see if it was worthy of checkoff investment.”
Through checkoff support to the Waseca Research Center, the project has been designed to move slowly and methodically through the scale-up process. The Minnesota Research & Promotion Council (MSR&PC) has since established a company, “Plasma Blue,” around the technology.
“We are now on the third variation of the design,” Slunecka says. “This stage gate process is a standard approach to make sure we are not wasting checkoff investments.”
As MSR&PC continues developing and improving Plasma Blue, the end goal is an increased demand for soybeans.
“The bottom line is the cheaper biodiesel can be produced, the more sustainable it is in the marketplace and the greater the demand for soy will be,” Slunecka says. “Those attributes have us very excited about the future for the plasma technology.”
MSR&PC Director Jim Call says the Council’s investment in the plasma technology has the capabilities to revolutionize the biodiesel industry while reigniting the Minnesota agriculture economy. In 2018, Minnesota farmers reported their lowest income level in decades.
“Plasma Blue could be a shining star for the Council and Minnesota farmers,” he says. “We’re charged with a mission to increase the profitability of soybean farmers in the state, and this project aims to do just that.”
Izuno lauded the cohesive collaboration between the University and MSR&PC; the Council’s financial and technical support, he says, has shaped and strengthened the project.
“Minnesota Soybean has been very good to the cause,” Izuno says. “They stepped up, they saw this technology and invested into getting the data. They’re fun, good people – we feel we can sit down and talk with them about where the plasma can go, what we might be able to do with it and throw ideas around.”
Slunecka also serves on the advisory committee at the Waseca Research Center.
“There’s a close connection with the farmer leaders and Tom’s staff,” Izuno says. “It’s been a very good relationship.”
Because of its unique characteristics, liquid plasma technology can achieve numerous advantages over conventional approaches to producing biodiesel. It has continuous process with rapid reaction, a high conversion rate and quality biodiesel product; it boasts a low energy consumption, reduced up and downstream process costs, enhanced feedstock flexibility and superior scalability.
“It’s a simple and elegant – at times, complicated – design that just works and can change the biodiesel industry,” Izuno says. “Using plasma versus standard biodiesel is a tremendous energy savings.”
Ultimately, both the University researchers and the Council share the same goal: refining, improving and testing the technology to a point where it’s ready to transform how biodiesel is produced.
“We know what works, but now the challenge is to find investors to help us take this technology to plants across the country,” Slunecka says. “When we achieve that, this technology will be able to produce literally millions of gallons of biodiesel.”
Passing the tests
The Plasma Reactor Project has cleared numerous and notable hurdles in recent years. In 2018, Izuno’s team, using corn and soybean oil as feedstocks, conducted a multitude of tests converting oil to meet ATSM D6751 specs (the industry standard for biodiesel). Izuno says the goal was to develop a pilot-scale reactor system and to see how effectively the plasma reactor functions. After nearly a month of continuous operation, the testing has proven reliable and capable of converting several types of oil created by today’s agricultural commodities.
“It’s vital to know for sure how good this technology and current designs are before taking it to full commercialization,” Slunecka says. “With each hurdle we’ve thrown at the technology – and with the addition of several outside consultants – we’ve been able to prove time and time again that Plasma Blue can reduce the cost of biodiesel.”
By creating a testing and development schedule with full commercialization in mind, the project has moved swiftly from bench top to demonstration scale to durability testing scale. The only roadblock slowing the advancement of the plasma technology was funding a winterized facility large enough to maintain work during the past winter.
The technology has progressed to the point where Slunecka has started meeting with potential customers and investors through the United States. Late in 2018, the Council officially registered “Plasma Blue” to take the invention to the next level. Its objective is to focus on the growth and proliferation of the technology across the biodiesel industry.
“It’s all systems go for Plasma Blue. We have identified a short list of customers that will have interest in the technology,” Slunecka says. “By starting with one small plant and moving to even-larger plants, the technology can grow at the same pace as market demand.”
MSR&PC Chair Patrick O’Leary says the Council is focused on fostering an environment in which Plasma Blue can prosper and become viable. Ultimately, the growers will benefit from Plasma Blue’s successes in the marketplace. As soybean yields in Minnesota continue increasing from advancements in production research, O’Leary says it’s critical to continue finding more new uses for an abundant crop.
“We’re connecting it back to the checkoff,” O’Leary says. “With Plasma Blue, we’re developing a technology that will make the production of biodiesel more efficient, and increase the value and drive demand for soybeans.”
From a corner office in Waseca to the world biodiesel marketplace, Plasma Blue has both researchers and farmer leaders thinking outside the box.
“Fortunately, Shaobo had the freedom to pursue his own mechanical engineering and physics interest,” Izuno says. “Now, we look forward to continuing our work with Council farmer leaders as we work to bring this technology to commercialization.”