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Chipping away: Professor, team of machinists, researchers use technology, flue gas to develop energy efficient fuel

Illustration by Natalie Riess | Art Director

A SUNY-ESF professor is turning a substance commonly found on playgrounds and parks into a more energy efficient fuel.

Thomas Amidon, a paper and bioprocess engineering professor at the State University of New York College of Environmental Science and Forestry, and a team of machinists and fellow researchers received a $150,000 grant from the New York State Energy Research and Development Authority. They are working on a machine that uses flue gas, the waste product that comes out of chimneys, to dry woodchips for fuel, Amidon said.

Although the gas is hot, the heat content will dissipate into the atmosphere and will no longer be useful, he added. The flue gas makes use of this waste heat to upgrade the quality of the woodchips.

“The heat’s value can also be upgraded by adding woodchips to it,” Amidon said. “You get a high-value woodchip by a low-value heat.”

Amidon said he and his team started this project because in their research, they found that woodchips dry faster with flue gas than woodchips that dry with conventional methods.

When woodchips are burned, a lot of the energy is spent boiling the water within them, Amidon said. The flame is not as hot as it could be and buildings can’t be heated with wet woodchips. Amidon added that woodchips can save a significant amount of money, but dry woodchips would be even better.

“The idea is good, even with un-extracted chips, because they tend to pick up the moisture more readily,” he said.

The grant money will go toward equipment, the machinist building the facility, buying parts, hiring a technician with a valuable design and the data collection system so that they can model their results, Amidon said.

The team also has a subcontract with a laboratory in Brookhaven, N.Y. After they dry a significant amount of woodchips, they will ship them to the lab, he said, adding that the lab will burn them in a controlled fashion and look at the gases to see if it will reduce the air pollution.

“We’re going to take the woodchips that are already useful in saving some money and make them a more efficient heat source,” Amidon said.

The team uses various techniques and machinery in their research, said Emma Putman, a senior bioprocess engineering major, and one of Amidon’s advisees. She said that they chip the wood and put it into a big pressurized vessel with water and cook the woodchips for two hours at 60 degrees C.

Bob Kelly, a SUNY-ESF Physical Plant machinist who is building the machine, said they use some welding and very little machinery.

“We’re supposed to just use the flue gas to prove that it can dry the chips,” he said.

However, before they begin drying the chips, they must simulate the process by using a hot-air blower and steam, Kelly said. They add steam in order to get the same properties as flue gas, he said. Then, they put the chips into a big barrel and measure the temperatures at different points. Later on, they check the barrel’s weight with the woodchips to see how fast it dries and can then predict and describe the process, he said.

Another procedure that the team is trying is extracting ethanol from sugar and wood, Kelly said.

“Whether you use sugar to make ethanol or not, you have to boil water,” he said. “The chips will be wet after extraction, so we will put them in the drier and dry them out.”

The sugars created from the burning can also be used to create biodegradable plastics, Putman said. This will eliminate the burden that conventional plastic waste is placing on the environment, she said, adding that the sugars can also be used to create alternative fuel sources so that people don’t have to be so dependent on fossil fuels.