Researchers to develop renewable fuel additives from sawdust

By UMass Lowell | October 01, 2018

The U.S. Department of Energy has awarded a three-year, $1 million grant to a team of researchers from UMass Lowell, the University of Maine and Florida-based Mainstream Engineering Corp. to develop renewable fuel additives made from woody biomass—particularly sawdust from sawmills.

“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,” says Hunter Mack, a UML assistant professor in the Department of Mechanical Engineering and the project’s principal investigator (PI). “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,” says Mack. “This biofuel-blend formulation will offer the same engine performance but hopefully it is easier and more environmentally friendly to produce.”

Joining him in conducting research at UML is chemical engineering Asst. Prof. Hsi-Wu Wong, who is a project co-PI, along with graduate students Martia Shahsavan and Mohammad Morovatiyan.

“We focus on transportation because the transportation sector is so heavily dependent on petroleum-based fuels,” says Wong. 

The project is part of the DOE’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,” says Mack.

The UMass Lowell-led project is one of 42 that the DOE has recently selected nationwide as part of its $80 million investment 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.” 

 

A New Role for Forest Byproducts

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. 

“We targeted woody biomass as raw material because of our collaboration with the University of Maine and its Forest Bioproducts Research Institute,” explains Mack. “The state of Maine has a large forest industry with a long history of making paper. The sawmills 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.”

He says scrap wood from the construction industry can be useful but, at the moment, they can’t 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,” notes 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 says there is enough woody biomass waste available to make the process economically viable. He adds that the papermaking 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, which is why we are getting the funding,” Wong says.

The total cost of the project, including cost share from UML and its subcontractors, is $1.45 million, according to Mack.

Other winners of the DOE grants include Penn State University, the University of California, San Diego and UC Irvine, the University of Texas at Austin, Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University, Worcester Polytechnic Institute, Carnegie Mellon University, Purdue University and SUNY University at Stony Brook, as well as R&D and automotive companies and national labs. The projects range from developing the next generation of lithium-ion batteries for electric vehicles to improving the energy efficiency of off-road vehicles used in construction, agriculture and mining operations.