Researchers: Sawdust is Next Wave in Renewable Energy
The U.S. Department of Energy has awarded a three-year, $1 million grant to a team of researchers led by a UMass Lowell mechanical engineering professor that is working to develop renewable fuel additives from sawdust and other wood byproducts.
“The additives, which are derived from sustainable raw materials, will help offset the use of traditional fossil fuels in internal combustion engines in cars and trucks as well as in steam turbines for power generation,” said Hunter Mack, a UMass Lowell assistant professor of mechanical engineering who is leading a team including researchers from academic institutions and industry. “Our lab’s goal is to increase energy efficiency, reduce emissions and identify other potential sustainable fuels and chemicals of the future.”
In this project, the term “additive” doesn’t necessarily mean in small quantities, nor is it meant to work as an engine-performance booster.
“Just like the unleaded gasoline you fill your car with, which can contain up to 10 percent ethanol by volume, the additive is intended to be mixed with traditional petroleum-based fuel like diesel to displace some volume of diesel with something renewable and help cut down the vehicle’s carbon footprint,” said Mack, an Arlington resident. “This biofuel-blend formulation will offer the same engine performance, but hopefully it is easier and more environmentally friendly to produce.”
In addition to Mack, the UMass Lowell researchers on the project include Assistant Prof. Hsi-Wu Wong of Chemical Engineering and graduate students Martia Shahsavan and Mohammad Morovatiyan.
“We focus on transportation because the transportation sector is so heavily dependent on petroleum-based fuels,” said Wong, who is a resident of Burlington.
The project is part of the Department of Energy’s Co-Optima initiative to develop fuel and engine innovations that work together to maximize vehicle performance and fuel economy.
“The DOE wants to co-optimize engines and fuels together to provide a cleaner, more efficient and sustainable transportation sector,” said Mack.
The UMass Lowell-led project also includes counterparts from the University of Maine and Florida-based Mainstream Engineering Corp. and was selected this fall by the DOE as part of its $80 million investment nationwide to support early-stage research of advanced vehicle technologies that can “enable more affordable mobility, strengthen domestic energy security, reduce the country’s dependence on foreign sources of critical materials and enhance U.S. economic growth.”
Sawdust is just one type of woody biomass being used in the research. “Woody biomass” refers to forest trees and woody plants, as well as their byproducts from wood manufacturing and processing that are not suitable for purchase or sale and don’t have an existing local market. Sawmills and other forest industry operations “have a lot of leftover biomass that needs to be disposed of, so we’re offering a way to convert it into something useful and even profitable,” Mack said.
Scrap wood from the construction industry could be useful in the future, but, for the time being, the team cannot use it.
“We’re applying precise chemical reaction engineering to the process for producing the additives, so the composition of the raw materials is important,” said Mack. “Construction wood might have other chemicals mixed in it, such as those used in pressure-treated lumber, and that would change how the reaction goes. So at least in the short term, we’re focusing solely on sawdust, which is a well-defined biomass stream.”
Wong said there is enough woody biomass waste available to make the process economically viable. He said that the paper-making industry in general is in decline and one of the economic benefits of this project is that it could provide the paper industry with a new source of revenue for its sawdust – in this case, for making biofuels, biopolymers and other bio-derived products.
“This is the direction that the wood industry in New England is exploring, and this is the direction that the DOE is heading,” Wong said.