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Out with the old, in with the new

Posted by Stephanie Rogers on June 12, 2015 in News, Research

By Emma Geldart

It’s no secret that the availability of fossil fuels to produce the fuels, chemicals and commodities that we need is on the steady decline. One researcher at Dalhousie University Faculty of Agriculture is looking at new ways to change how fuels are produced using environmentally sustainable and readily available methods.

Dr. Sophia He is a chemical engineer on the Dalhousie Agricultural Campus. For more than 20 years, Dr. He has been working on reaction and separation engineering. More recently, she’s been focusing on biofuels and bio-product development.

“The mission of a chemical engineer is to convert raw materials into useful products in an efficient, cost-effective and environmentally friendly way, to improve the quality of life,” Dr. He explains. “My first ten years after graduating from college, had been devoted to optimizing petroleum refinery processes, increasing productivity and reducing pollution caused by sulfur in the crude oil.”

Dr. He is now focusing on making fuels and bio-products from non-conventional crops and bio-waste such as agricultural and forestry residues, animal manure, agri-food processing waste and solid municipal waste. One area of her research looks at the development of on-farm biodiesel production.

“Bio-diesel is renewable, biodegradable and can be directly used in diesel engines without modification, representing a promising substitute for petro-diesel,” Dr. He says. “Our research group targets developing efficient biodiesel production processes on a farm scale from a variety of feedstock such as used cooking oil, canola and camelina.”

Dr. He is also looking at the extraction of inulin- a functional food ingredient that comes from a low cost crop, Jerusalem artichoke. Jerusalem artichoke is a plant native to North America, thus suitable to grow in Nova Scotia. It has high growth rate, good tolerance to frost, drought and poor soil, strong resistance to pests and plant diseases and has little fertilizer requirements.

“The inulin extracted from Jerusalem can be processed into bioethanol for energy application,” Dr. He explains.

One other specific area of research that Dr. He is working on is the production and bio-refinery of crude bio-oil derived from bio-waste. Dr. He explains that a hydrothermal liquefaction process that works like a pressure cooker can generate crude bio-oil from all kinds of organic waste.   

“I call it from waste to wealth!” Dr. He says.

Through her research, Dr. He hopes to have a significant impact on the local community and agriculture industry. She wants to reduce the reliance on petroleum fuels, decrease energy costs on farms and provide an alternative option for waste treatment.

“This research really brings a new opportunity to the agriculture industry,” Dr. He says. “Agriculture is one of the most important industries in Nova Scotia. Each year tons of agriculture waste is generated from current crop plantations. This, combined with the abundance of marginal land suitable for non-conventional crops, creates a sustainable advantage. At the same time, farm operations require significant amounts of liquid biofuels, mainly gasoline and diesel.”

With these opportunities in mind, Dr. He hopes to find new solutions to replace the old methods of producing fuels, chemicals and commodities and reduce the burden on landfills and improve environmental sustainability.