Biomass researcher works on pipelines for green gold

By Daren Zomerman, Edmonton Journal | August 12, 2014

Mahdi Vaezi does research on moving biofuels through pipelines in his lab in the University of Alberta’s mechanical engineering building.
Mahdi Vaezi does research on moving biofuels through pipelines in his lab in the University of Alberta’s mechanical engineering building.

Working under Amit Kumar, the associate industrial research chair in energy and environmental systems engineering, Mahdi Vaezi is studying how best to pump biomass – in this case the waste from the processing of crops such as wheat or corn – directly from farmers to biorefineries through pipelines currently reserved for more traditional energy sources.

“There is no large scale bio-based facility operating in the world,” Vaezi said. “The main reason is because of the transportation and logistical issues.”

Vaezi has been testing the viability and economic feasibility of a biomass pipeline, formulating the dilution mixtures, monitoring fire hazards, assembling and reassembling pipes in search of clogs, and creating a technical picture of why biomass pipeline transportation needs to become common.

He is conducting his research in a custom-built closed-loop pipe 25 metres long and five centimetres in diameter. Vaezi has spent so much time in the lab that he can no longer hear the near-constant, deafening hum of the engines that pump his green gold in a way that might be just feasible enough to adopt.

What is biomass?

Simply put, all biological material derived from living organisms can be considered biomass. In the U of A project, Vaezi is focusing on the readily available waste products from Alberta-produced crops such as corn, and wheat-straw. He says these products can be broken down using relatively simple processes to produce clean burning ethanol or syngas.

What are the benefits of biomass?

Biomass is a renewable resource that requires little outside energy to process into usable energy. There is no extra environmental damage from drilling and tailings ponds, and the processed products have been shown to be both efficient and essentially, a “clean fuel.” One of the greatest benefits, according to Vaezi, is that it is produced using what would have otherwise been discarded as waste material. There is currently one biomass refinery in Vegreville that produces biogas and fertilizer from local food waste and farm manure.

Why use pipelines to transport biomass?

According to Vaezi’s research, a fleet of 15 semi-trucks would be needed to transport the biomass required for a medium-sized refinery to operate. Not only is this not economical, he said, it is environmentally damaging to have large numbers of trucks on the road clogging already traffic-filled Alberta highways. The major advantage to pipelines is that they can transport more materials further for cheaper.

“We are doing this because we are trying to make bio-refineries, or bio-based energy facilities economically feasible, because nowadays, they are not,” Vaezi said. “The cost of transport (today) can contribute to 40 per cent of the final product.”

Vaezi said transportation costs need to be reduced to around 20 per cent of the overall cost, which is possible with a pipeline. “Then you can be hopeful that in the near future bio-based refineries would be economically feasible,” he said.

Are pipelines that much more efficient?

According to Vaezi’s research, the structure of fibrous biomass actually takes less energy to transport than oil and even water. “To have such a structure wastes less energy because there is less friction between the solid particles and the wall of the pipe.”

But perhaps the biggest benefit to using pipelines, according to Vaezi, is that the refining process can start as soon as the biomass enters the pipeline.

“Instead of having everything wait until it gets to the refinery, we are going to use pre-treated material mixed with water and pumped into the pipeline and throughout transportation, for example at boosting stations, we are going to add enzymes into the pipelines to get the material digested while it is being transported,” Vaezi said excitedly. “That way, once it gets to the refinery, it is already a usable product.”



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