Pacific Northwest National Laboratory Tag

By Maegan Murray, WSU Tri-Cities

RICHLAND, Wash. – A method of converting a biofuel waste product into a usable and valuable commodity has been discovered by researchers at Washington State University and Pacific Northwest National Laboratory.

Converting algae to biofuels is a two-step process. The first, developed by PNNL, applies high pressure and high temperature to algae to create bio oil. The second converts that bio oil into biofuel, which can replace gasoline, diesel and jet fuel.

It’s that first step, called hydrothermal liquefaction, that produces waste — approximately 25 to 40 percent of carbon and 80 percent of nutrients from the algae are left behind in wastewater streams.

Bionatural gas and fertilizer

The wastewater is generally hard to process because it contains a variety of different chemicals in small concentrations, said Birgitte K. Ahring, professor at WSU Tri-Cities’ Bioproducts, Sciences and Engineering Laboratory. But Ahring and her team have found that adapting anaerobic microbes — microbes that live without oxygen — to break down the remaining residue is a viable option. Through this process, the material becomes degradable and gets transformed into a bionatural gas without the use of harsh chemicals. The solid material that remains can also be applied as a fertilizer or recycled back into the hydrothermal liquefaction process for further use.

Birgitte Ahring, left, with his research team
WSU Professor Birgitte Ahring, center, points to test sample, with her research team

The results of the team’s research are published this month in Bioresource Technology. The team also consists of:

  • Keerthi Srinivas, WSU postdoctoral research associate
  • Sebastian Fernandez, WSU research assistant
  • Andrew Schmidt, of PNNL’s chemical and biological processes development group
  • Marie Swita, of PNNL’s chemical and biological processes development group

Don’t waste waste

“It has always been my mantra that we shouldn’t waste waste,” Ahring said. “We had an idea that we could turn this waste product into something useful, such as a fertilizer. Our findings revealed that we could use this waste product as something much more.”

The ability to convert a waste product into a usable commodity provides algal biorefineries with a solution to a large problem, Ahring said.

“After removing the solids, about 10 percent of the output is bio oil, with the remaining 90 percent being a waste byproduct,” Schmidt said. “The fact that we’ve developed an alternative method to recycle or treat the leftover material means it’s more economical to produce the bio oil, making the potential for commercial use of the process more likely.”

Sewage sludge and wastewater

Ahring said the team’s results were so promising that they are now partnering with PNNL on its conversion of sewage sludge to fuel using a similar strategy for the wastewater.

“Today, sewage sludge is found throughout the world,” Ahring said. “Creating a process to produce biofuels, bio-natural gas, and nutrients from this material would be of major importance. The current study has demonstrated that nothing should ever be regarded as a waste, but instead as a resource.”

Schmidt said PNNL’s partnership with WSU allowed each team to focus on different aspects of the biomass conversion.  The collaboration is further enhanced by the Bioproducts, Sciences and Engineering Laboratory, a facility PNNL and WSU built together on the WSU Tri-Cities campus nearly a decade ago.

“PNNL and WSU researchers interacted frequently on the project,” said Schmidt.   “While PNNL engineers focused on converting the algae to bio oil, the WSU team was able to delve deeply into fundamental research of wastewater conversion with microbes, which included taking advantage of unique analytical capabilities on the PNNL campus.”

A WSU alumnus himself, receiving both his bachelor’s and master’s degrees from WSU, Schmidt said he’s excited to team on additional programs and projects aligned with goals to grow the collaboration between PNNL and WSU.

 

Contacts:

By Maegan Murray, WSU Tri-Cities

The United States power grid is connected by more than 450,000 miles of high-voltage transmission lines to provide electricity to more than 300 million people. But as the saying goes, with great power, comes great responsibility.

Yousu Chen – PNNL

With the increase of renewable energy sources, the growth of the increasingly complex system and increases in terrorist threats, engineers have to come up with new methods to protect the power grid.

Yousu Chen (WSU Tri-Cities MS, environmental engineering), staff research engineer at the Pacific Northwest National Laboratory, is using high-performance computing techniques to safeguard the electrical grid against potential threats and outages.

“The power grid is the largest man-made machine in the world,” he said. “It is the most important infrastructure, and we need it daily for almost all of our daily activities. I’m always eager to know what I can do in this fast-growing area to solve new problems.”

During his time as a student at WSU Tri-Cities, Chen got his first internship at PNNL. He also learned skills in simulation and modeling that have proven invaluable to his career.

He has been involved in the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers, increasing opportunities for current students.

Solving problems before they happen

Chen‘s work focuses primarily on modern computing techniques that both simulate potential hazards and provide ways for monitoring information within the grid. Through the advancement of high-performing computing techniques, he and his team at PNNL are developing simulations to predict and combat problems before they occur.

Chen’s computing systems utilize complex algorithms to measure power flow, identify potential problem areas, simulate possible outcomes if there were to be an outage or a catastrophic event, as well as provide solutions in how to deal with those potential problem areas.Power pole

“For example, if we want to evaluate the impact of newer smart grid technologies on the power grid, we use our simulation techniques to prepare for the event before we apply those new technologies to the grid,” he said. “Using our simulation, we could determine how that issue would impact the grid, and as a result, how we can prevent that from occurring.”

Chen said he and his team are always developing newer computing techniques to run simulations at a faster rate, which will be crucial in the event of a major outage or disruption.

“Some systems will take minutes, depending on the system, to run a limited number of contingencies,” he said. “My code is able to run 1 million contingencies in less than 30 seconds. That is a major achievement.”

With all of the data generated through advanced computing methods, Chen and his team are also always looking take the massive data caches and efficiently turn them into something usable and visual.

“Because high-performance computing systems can create a lot of data, it is challenging to digest that data in the short-term,” he said. “We develop advanced visualization tools, which allow us to view that data in real time and provide a quick response for potential events.”

Giving back to the future of engineering

Even though Chen has achieved much in his career as an engineer, he has used his position to increase opportunities for disseminating knowledge of his field into the community, as well as create pathways for other students to follow in his footsteps.

Chen realized early in his higher education career just how valuable mentorship and extracurricular learning experiences could be to his own growth as an engineer. In addition to utilizing university resources to connect him with an internship at PNNL, he also sought advice for how to improve his resume, his interview skills and more through the university’s career development center. After landing a full-time position of his own at PNNL, he wanted to keep paying forward what he learned, using his connections in engineering and computer science to provide resources and mentoring to aspiring engineering students.

Chen has since volunteered his time through a variety of capacities for the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers. He serves as chair for the IEEE’s distinguished lecture program and formerly served as the regional representative of the IEEE Power & Energy Society and the regional chair for the IEEE Power Energy Society’s scholarship plus program. He also serves as the editor for two professional journals where he helps edit and review articles for publication pertaining to the smart grid.

As a result of his efforts, Chen was recently awarded the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers’ Leadership Award for the contributions he has made to IEEE activities and the leadership he’s displayed through IEEE at the local, regional and national levels. In a congratulatory letter, Wai-Choong Wong, vice president of the member and geographic activities at IEEE, stated that Chen has set a great example in carrying forward the goals and objectives of the IEEE MGA board.

Chen said he is grateful for all he learned in his education at WSU Tri-Cities, as well as what he has been able to accomplish since then by means of his work at PNNL, as well as through his involvement with the IEEE.

“These opportunities changed my life,” he said. “I’ve been fortunate to accomplish a lot in my career as an engineer and I believe it is my responsibility to not only increase the capabilities of the power grid, but to also increase the potential for the world’s future engineers who will solve many of these energy-related problems.”

By Maegan Murray, WSU Tri-Cities

elmar-villota
Elmar Villota

RICHLAND, Wash. – In Elmar Villota’s home country of the Philippines, as much as 15 percent of households do not have electricity. Villota, a doctoral student in biological systems engineering at Washington State University Tri-Cities, is motivated to close that gap with renewable energy.

“A simple light bulb could make a world of difference,” he said. “Without a sustainable source of electricity, students can’t have light or read comfortably at night. Imagine how much knowledge they would miss.”

elmar-villota-left-educates-filipino-residents-web
Elmar Villota, left, educates
Filipino residents on basic
maintenance and
troubleshooting for an
energy device.

With a population of more than 100 million scattered across more than 7,100 islands, the Philippines faces the challenge of extending power to everyone, he said.

“In the Philippines, we are end users in terms of technology,” Villota said. “Historically, we have purchased technology rather than making or innovating it ourselves for our own use.”

Renewable energy, he added, could help address the nation’s sustainable energy concerns and stimulate technological growth.

Turning biomass into fuel, other products

As part of the Engineering and Research Development for Technology scholarship program, which is offered to all Filipino engineers by the Philippines’ Department of Science and Technology, Villota is working toward his doctorate at WSU Tri-Cities.

elmar-villota-with-residents-web
Elmar Villota with Filipino residents.

He is studying how to convert second-generation biomass, such as agricultural waste or woody crops, to biofuels and other useful products, such as bio-based polymers and chemicals. Working under WSU associate professor Bin Yang, Villota mainly is focused on enzymatic hydrolysis, a process that uses bacteria and fungi to break down plant cell walls to sugar, which is turned into fuel.

Villota has written a book chapter on the subject in cooperation with Yang and Ziyu Dai, a senior scientist at Pacific Northwest National Laboratory (PNNL). He is also working with Rongchun Shen, a visiting scholar from China, on techno-economic assessment regarding methods for converting lignin—structural polymers in plants—into useful, high-value products like bioplastics.

Bioproducts lab, PNNL draw scholar

Villota was attracted to WSU Tri-Cities because of its national reputation for excellence in renewable energy research and its partnership with PNNL, a leading national innovator in the renewable energy sector.

elmar-villota-in-wsu-tri-cities-lab-web
Elmar Villota in a BSEL lab at WSU Tri-Cities.

“WSU is one of the best schools for renewable energy because of the WSU Tri-Cities’ Bioproducts, Sciences and Engineering Laboratory and the university’s relationship with PNNL,” he said. “That is what really encouraged me to go here.”

He also contributes to advancing Filipino renewable energy through his home university, serving as a lecturer at Central Luzon State University. He also is a technical expert in renewable energy for the university’s Affiliated Renewable Energy Center and Phil-Sino Center for Agricultural Technology.

Villota said he is hopeful that thousands of fellow Filipinos will benefit from his work, which could lead to basic electrification and light and even broader impacts.

“Through this experience, I hope to extend students’ learning capabilities, and in turn, extend the potential for them to make a difference in the world,” he said.

 

 

Contacts:

Elmar Villota, WSU Tri-Cities doctoral student, elmar.villota@wsu.edu
Bin Yang, WSU Tri-Cities biological systems engineering, 509-372-7640,binyang@tricity.wsu.edu
Maegan Murray, WSU Tri-Cities public relations, 509-372-7333,maegan.murray@tricity.wsu.edu