Field

How turning manure into energy could help fight global warming

They say one man’s trash is another man’s treasure. And while medieval alchemists may have been scamming with their lead-into-gold stage shows, what today’s real chemical engineers are concocting is altogether more impressive.
Interview with Dr Vasiliki Skoulou, lecturer in Chemical Engineering

So forget turning one metal into another. Because now scientists across the world are developing potentially planet-saving processes with the power to transform faeces and farm waste into sustainable fuel. We caught up with Dr Vasiliki Skoulou, a lecturer in Chemical Engineering who is pioneering bioenergy-biofuels research from waste at the University of Hull.

Wait… energy from waste?

Ok, time for a quick science lesson. Low-carbon bioenergy is a fairly new concept that utilises waste organic material and its residue. The practice is really taking hold e.g. on farms, where bioenergy in its different forms can be harnessed in everything from manure and corn husks to straw and human sewage. 

These waste products all contain trapped chemical energy – captured sunlight, carbon or the remnants of once living organisms – and can be compressed into storable pellets that are used much like coal. Got that? Take a re-read if you need. Good stuff. 

“With bioenergy production we can prevent farm waste from decomposing in fields and stop its residue running off into the environment,” says Dr Skoulou. “Not only does it take us away from planet-damaging practices like digging up coal, but it even stops rotting farm waste from emitting CH4, which is more harmful than CO2when released to the environment. It’s a win-win for the planet if we can get it right.”

Yorkshire leading the way

You might expect this kind of ground breaking engineering to be taking place in US labs or Chinese manufacturing plants, but the UK is pushing the field’s boundaries. Drax Power Station in North Yorkshire has become one of the first coal burning plants to switch part of its production to biomass pellets, a solid biofuel. But that’s just the start, explains Dr Skoulou.

“At the moment Drax imports its pellets from abroad, and here in the University of Hull we found out that we’ve plenty of waste-productive farmland in this part of the world and so we’re looking at how we can produce our own UK pellets to feed small size energy generation units in UK.”

The drive has led UG and PG Chemical Engineering students at the University of Hull to work alongside lecturers and specifically  the B3: Biomass Waste- Bioenergy- Biomaterials Challenge Group of Dr Skoulou in exploring how local communities can create biomass originated fuel. The gasification of agriculture residue and other waste is already one cutting-edge piece of research coming out of the University, and there are big things on the horizon.

Future applications

“We’re only just scratching the surface of what’s possible for the future of the sustainability of energy and fuels production from waste,” says Dr Skoulou. “The practical applications that we’re finding for bioenergy are almost endless.” 

Researchers are already looking intopowering smaller energy generation units with pellets and biofuels, meaning that everything from vehicles to generators could one day be partially powered by manure and corn husks alone. There’s also talk of electrical energy plants switching to bio.

“The new side of chemical engineering is becoming something of a ‘practice-as-we-go’, where every waste-to-energy idea is open to be tested and we are yet to know where breakthroughs will occur,” explains Dr Skoulou. “That’s a pretty enticing prospect for any scientist and an incredibly exciting time to be getting into this field of work.”

 

Chemical Engineering degrees

 

Written by Daniel Humphry – award-winning writer and founder of OFF LIFE, the UK’s only street press comic.