West Virginia University researchers are working to bring together the state’s two most abundant natural resources – coal and wood – to create a more environmentally friendly fuel that would simultaneously address climate change issues and help the state’s economy.

Dr. Kaushlendra Singh, an assistant professor of wood science and technology in WVU’s Davis College of Agriculture, Natural Resources and Design, is leading a team that is using a $108,900 grant from the U.S. Department of Energy to study a co-gasification process that could produce a cleaner liquid transportation fuel and lower the carbon footprint on the environment. The project, part of the University’s Advanced Energy Initiative, could also have a significant economic impact.

Click to hear Dr. Zondlo talk about the challenges of co-producing forest residue and coal and why West Virginia and WVU in particular are great places for this type of research to occur.

[ Click to listen ]

“The state of West Virginia has tremendous potential due to the availability of abundant forest-based biomass for biorefining applications,” Singh said. “If used wisely, it can make West Virginia a leading biorefining industry.”

Singh’s team also includes Jingxin Wang, associate professor of forestry and wood science, and John Zondlo, professor of chemical engineering.

While not completely carbon neutral, a coal-biomass fuel would be a step in the direction toward meeting the demand for affordable, abundant, clean energy. Singh thinks it could dilute coal’s carbon footprint “significantly,” which could become crucial if the government enacts legislation further restricting carbon emissions, which he expects will happen in the next five years.

“Decreasing our dependence on foreign oil and encouraging sustainability is part of our mission and vision at West Virginia University,” said Curt M. Peterson, vice president for research and economic development and president of the WVU Research Corp.

“To reach this goal, we’re harnessing ideas and expertise from a variety of scientific disciplines all across campus. Dr. Singh’s team is an example of such collaboration and of our multi- and intra-disciplinary approach to alternative energy solutions.”

The project presents some challenges, Singh said, but the presence of thriving coal and timber industries in West Virginia lessens major logistical obstacles such as forest residue collection and long distance transportation. Some of the residue can be collected from WVU forests and sawmills, Singh said.

Click to hear Dr. Singh talk about the ideas behind blending forest residue and coal and the potential for this new energy source.

[ Click to listen ]

Although coal requires a much higher temperature for conversion than biomass, the two complement each other in the conversion process.

“The calcium, sodium and potassium in wood ash actually help to catalyze coal conversion, improving the overall process,” Zondlo said.

The team has already produced samples of a solid coal/biomass fusion in the form of brittle pellets which can be gasified to produce liquid fuel. Singh said initial tests look promising but the process will need to be conducted on a larger scale to determine its feasibility.

“The project is one of the biomass utilization projects that support the goals of the Advanced Energy Initiative in the area of sustainable energy and the coal/biomass to liquid fuels in the program,” said Wang, who leads the Wood Science and Technology program in the Davis College’s Division of Forestry and Natural Resources.

Click to listen to Dr. Wang talk about Davis College's Wood Science and Technology program and the growing interest in bioenergy and bioenergy education.

[ Click to listen ]

Along with his research, Singh is helping to educate the next generation of green job-seekers. He has created a bio-energy course, “Introduction to Biobased Energy Systems” for students in the Wood Science and Technology program. He says the American Clean Energy and Security Act of 2009 will create millions of new clean energy jobs.

“Biomass processing industries are already doing business in the state,” Singh said. “In order to put West Virginia in a leading position, West Virginia University must proactively take the lead to research biomass/coal processing and to educate students so we can supply the workforce for the growing biorefining/bioenergy industry.”

Singh is so enamored of these emerging research trends that he is organizing sessions on co-processing of coal-biomass and carbon trading and sequestration for like-minded researchers at the 2011 international conference of the American Society of Agricultural and Biological Engineers. It will be the first time the 103-year-old, 9,000-member, international professional society formally will be discussing coal.

“If scientists, engineers, business leaders, and Congress all act wisely to promote co-processing of coal and biomass, we would be promoting a more environmentally friendly energy future,” he said.

The WVU Advanced Energy Initiative coordinates University-wide energy research in science, technology, engineering and public policy. Singh’s research is part of AEI’s National Research Center for Coal and Energy Research and its work with the Consortium for Fossil Fuel Science.

By Dan Shrensky
Communications Specialist
WVU News and Information



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