The use of simulators saves money and, often, lives. The US military uses flight and vehicle simulators to train pilots and drivers on how to handle its highly advanced equipment in a virtual environment before turning them loose on the real thing. As a result, the operators are more prepared to handle tasks and emergent situations in real-life scenarios. Perhaps it’s that notion of preparedness that drove David Grewell, an associate professor of agricultural and biosystems engineering at Iowa State University, to develop his virtual biorefinery. This “virtual control room”, according to this statement, was “designed to help students in Iowa State’s biorenewable resources and technology program learn about biofuel production. And it could be used by the biofuel industry to help train employees to operate a biorefinery.”

Grewell calls his virtual control room “Nintendo for biofuel nerds” but the simulator, called I-BOS (the Interactive Biorefinery Operations Simulator), is all about education. The I-BOS is based on real Iowa biorefineries that are producing ethanol and biodiesel and is said to be calibrated to match real-world performance. In it, students can learn about the day-to-day operations of a real biorefinery. The system keeps track of energy consumption, production efficiency and fuel quality. It also features interactive video clips from real biofuel plants that gives students an insider’s look at the entire production process.

Biorefinery simulator
image via Iowa State University

Like any good simulator, this one has been programmed to simulate emergency situations in addition to daily operations. The virtual control room, for example, can simulate a fire in an ethanol plant’s distillation column, right down to a red emergency light flashing on the control room wall. “Students will have to respond to the fire and learn what to turn off to minimize and contain the damage,” Grewell said.

Grewell and his gang of researchers also designed the system to be adaptable. While it currently runs biorefinery simulations for ethanol and biodiesel production based on existing feedstocks and technologies, it can be programmed to simulate proposed processes and conversions for other feedstocks, like cellulose from plants or oil from algae. Such a simulator could shorten the path to new refining techniques and prepare the workers who will run those refineries in advance.

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