Researcher sees future of biofuels coming down the pipe

Engineering PhD student explores possibility of pipelines for moving raw materials of biofuel from farms to refineries.

(Edmonton) As society explores energy sources such as biofuels, a researcher at the University of Alberta is seeking answers to questions about the processes to develop them, to ensure we're not creating one problem by solving another.

Mahdi Vaezi, a PhD student in the Faculty of Engineering, is doing groundbreaking research to determine whether it's effective to use pipelines to transport agricultural waste used in biofuels, such as straw and corn stover, from farms to bio-based energy facilities. Vaezi's is the only lab in the world conducting this kind of research on biomass slurries.

Biomass-material derived from food and non-food organisms and a potential "green" energy source-has traditionally been transported by truck, at great expense. When done at a large scale, transporting biomass materials by slurry pipeline could help make the cost of biorefineries competitive.

Solving the pipeline puzzle one piece at a time

When Vaezi began presenting his research papers in 2010, he had many skeptics. No one could be sure whether pipeline transport of agricultural waste biomass was even mechanically feasible, and there were questions about how much water would be required to create a slurry that would flow well, and how much energy the whole process would consume.

Vaezi, whose master's degree focused on energy conversion, has answered most of the mechanical questions he set out to answer. He knows how much water and energy are required and how agricultural waste biomass slurries behave. He has conducted studies on the viscosity of solid biomass-liquid mixtures, the pressure drop behaviour of the solid biomass-liquid mixture in the pipeline, and the performance of centrifugal slurry pumps handling biomass slurries.

He has also developed a numerical model to predict the loss of friction in the biomass slurry, which predicts how long it takes for a mixture to lose its pressure inside a pipeline. Variation in chemical specifications of biomass slurry through a pipeline is another area he has investigated in co-operation with the U of A's Biorefining Conversions Network.

It wasn't easy, though. When he first arrived, his lab, the Large-Scale Fluids Lab in the Mechanical Engineering Building, needed considerable modification. He needed a closed-loop pipe 25 metres long and two inches in diameter. He also needed to assemble much of the equipment and instruments used to measure flow specifications of the biomass slurry. It took months to determine what was needed, put in orders, await delivery, then install and calibrate the equipment.

On top of that, he has had countless disasters that he can laugh about now: the overflow that had people in the offices below him a little distraught when water began to leak through the ceiling. The times the pump and pressure gauges didn't work. The clogged pipes. There were many days when he felt he wouldn't be able to complete the work he set out to do.

Perseverance pays off

But his perseverance has paid off in a long list of successes. Vaezi has had two papers published, and has three in review and one more in progress. In November 2013, he received the prize for the best poster presentation at the Biorefining Conversions Network's annual conference in Banff. From the Agricultural Biotechnology International Conference he has received both a travel bursary and the prize for best presentation in the energy field. He has twice received one of 16 travel bursaries from OO Energiesparverband, the organization behind World Sustainable Energy Day, one of the largest annual conferences in sustainable energy. On top of that, he has received support from the Shell Enhanced Learning Fund, and the U of A's Graduate Students' Association Interdisciplinary Award. He has also won prizes for the best paper in mechanical engineering (2010) and energy and environment (2011) at the U of A's Faculty of Engineering Graduate Research Symposium.

Vaezi is now analyzing the technical economics of moving agricultural waste biomass by pipeline. He is far enough along to know that transportation costs are considerably lower by pipeline than by truck. His research, he says, is promising at every level.

He's leading the research under the supervision of mechanical engineering professor Amit Kumar, the NSERC/Cenovus/Alberta Innovates Associate Industrial Research Chair in Energy and Environmental Systems Engineering. Vaezi's research is funded by the Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council of Canada, Alberta Innovates - Bio Solutions and the Biorefining Conversions Network.

Steve Price, executive director of Alberta Innovates - Bio Solutions, notes that "transportation is a major component of the cost of both agriculture and forestry production, and therefore it merits looking at alternate transportation methods," particularly at a time when so many people are questioning the use of pipelines.

Vaezi says conducting multidisciplinary research requires a comprehensive understanding of various aspects of the subject, as well as an appropriate approach to correlate and guide the research objectives. "Here," he said, "is where supervision plays a major role, and I have been lucky to work with Dr. Kumar, whose unlimited guidance and support have always been a great asset to this research." He adds that he has been "blessed to chat, eat, discuss and laugh on a daily basis with those members of our research group in the Sustainable Energy Research Laboratory. Such a great atmosphere cannot fail to help anyone achieve great goals."