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Researcher sees future of biofuel pipeline

August 5, 2014, Edmonton, Alta. - A University of Alberta researcher is trying to find out how efficient it is to transport agricultural waste used in biofuels to biorefineries by pipeline.


August 5, 2014
By University of Alberta

Topics

August 5, 2014, Edmonton, Alta. – A University of
Alberta researcher is trying to find out how efficient it is to transport
agricultural waste used in biofuels to biorefineries by pipeline.

 

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.

 

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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.”


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