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MUN Researcher On Leading Edge In Biofuel

Last May, Memorial professor Dr. Kelly Hawboldt received the 2013 Bantrel Award in Design and Industrial Practice for, among other things, her work in developing biofuels from industrial waste. While biofuels are a growing source of energy and media buzzword, the term is incredibly broad.

“Biofuel is any fuel derived from any biomass,” said Hawboldt. “You can produce things like bio-ethanol, bio-oils, bio-diesel, bio-gasoline. All of them are possible depending on how you convert the biomass.”

The variety comes not only from what fuels can be made, but what they can be made out of. Any biomass can be converted into biofuel, but obviously some sources are more suited to one fuel than another.

“Things with a higher sugar or cellulose content, they’re better for things like bio-ethanol. Forestry residue, fish waste—because they tend to be more heterogeneous and less sugary—they’re better suited for bio-oils,” said Hawboldt.

While there are applications for pure bio-fuels, most are used as additives to conventional petroleum fuels to help them burn cleaner.

“As we’re using more unconventional oil and gas, there are more contaminants. Biofuels, in general, the particulate matter is less, the CO2 emissions are reduced, the sulphur is less—and then they’re further reduced because you’re using a renewable material in the first place.”

Not that biofuels are a magical cure-all to emissions woes. Bio-ethanol from corn, for example, has been criticized as taking more energy to produce than it saves in emissions, not to mention the ethical question of burning foods as fuel. Hawboldt stresses the importance of remembering that “biofuel” casts a wide net, and not all are created equally.

“The whole point of this is to try and come up with processing technologies that aren’t overly energy intense in our waste producing. So with any type of work we do, we do a life-cycle analysis [of the fuel]; so we look at from the point where you get the waste, pre-treat it or process it, and then produce a biofuel are the energy uses, the greenhouse gases and the waste associated just as detrimental as petroleum fuels? Or less, or more, or how can we optimize?”

Hawboldt’s research focuses on fuels from tree waste and fish waste, which has the benefit of not only finding value it what was once garbage, but can potentially lead to additional savings in transportation if industrial sites can be fitted to produce these biofuels on-site.

“The uniqueness to what we’re doing here in Newfoundland is we’re designing it for remote locations. First of all deriving the waste material locally, the biomass locally, and then using that biomass to supply locally.”

Ideally, the effects of a cleaner burning, locally produced fuel made from what would have been waste begin to compound.

“If you produce fuel from a food crop the most energy intensive part is growing and harvesting it. When we’re talking biofuel from waste there’s no extraction problem—it’s fish waste. They’re making it anyway.”