US researcher working on world’s first biomass pipeline

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Mahdi Vaezi, a professor of engineering technology at Northern Illinois University (NIU), is investigating the feasibility of constructing an innovative, first-of-its-kind biomass pipeline. The project is supported by a $650,000 (€607k)  grant over four years from the US Department of Agriculture (USDA).
The project has the potential to lay the groundwork for the world's first biomass pipeline in the state of Maine, Vaezi said.
In consultation with the Construction Management Institute of Maine, the project will include a case study of the techno-economy of large-scale and long-distance biomass pipelines, for a potential 10-mile long woodchips pipeline to supply a commercial port in Eastport, Maine. The woodchips would be pipelined in a slurry (a mixture with water) to the port and shipped to Europe.
“Maine has a massive port used in part to send woodchips to Europe, but they can’t get enough material to the port because of transportation issues,” Vaezi said. “A pipeline could eliminate the need for thousands of woodchip truckloads per year.”
In the past, the high cost of transporting biomass feedstock, most often by truck, has been a major barrier toward increasing the scale of biomass-based energy facilities. The current study will include technological and economic analyses to compare the pipeline hydro-transport of biomass with truck, train and ship transportation in short, medium and long distances.
“Pipelining is considered a near-zero emission process, which eliminates environmental and social issues associated with overland transportation,” Vaezi said.
An added benefit of a pipeline system is that the biomass slurry can be heated to destroy contaminants or infestation that may be subject of biomass shipping regulations, Vaezi added. Once delivered, biomass could be screened to recycle water and moved to an open space, where it could be naturally or mechanically air dried at little to no cost.
In addition to wood chips, the NIU team will study the economic and mechanical feasibility of pumping sawdust and wheat straw water mixtures via pipeline.
“Biomass feedstock provides energy security,” Vaezi said. “It’s the only type of renewable energy that can be directly converted into biofuel.
“We anticipate this novel work will introduce pipeline as a technically feasible and economically viable mode of delivery to transport biomass feedstock in large scales and over long distances at costs noticeably lower than other modes of delivery, such as truck, train and ship,” he added. “This will make biomass-based energy facilities scale- and economy-wise competitive with fossil fuel-based plants.”
The grant
The USDA grant will be used in part to purchase roughly $100,000 (€93.5k) in instruments and equipment for a new Waste Advanced Solution Technologies and Ecosystems Laboratory (WASTE Lab) in Still Gym, where a 30-foot, closed circuit prototype pipeline will be assembled in coming months.
NIU’s Department of Engineering Technology, College of Engineering and Engineering Technology and Division of Research and Innovation Partnerships (RIPS) are also supporting the laboratory development.
RIPS also helped Vaezi find industry and scientific partners for the project. Collaborators on the grant are Dr Parisa Mirbod (the Mirbod Lab) at the University of Illinois at Chicago (UIC) and Biofine Developments Northeast Inc., a biomass user and biorefinery. Mirbod and her group at UIC will investigate the phenomena behind plug flow formation and drag reduction effect in the flow of fibrous biomass particles slurries in pipes and pumps using flow visualisation techniques such as Particle Image Velocimetry (PIV).
“This is a great example of a research collaboration that connects a faculty expert with innovators, entrepreneurs, industry and students,” said Gerald Blazey, vice president of RIPS. “We’re happy to help support this important research.”

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