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Waste-to-Fuels Research

Narrator:        Seven years ago, Joe Norbeck, former director of UCR's College of Engineering Center for Environmental Research and Technology (CE-CERT) had a problem.

The center had just completed construction and testing of a new high temperature reactor, designed by the United States EPA to convert wood chips into methanol. The reactor did not work to the level needed for commercialization. And while this was a set back, the failture inspired professor Norbeck to think outside the box, so to speak, concerning the potential for reactors such as this to help solve the world energy crisis.

He had a hunch - and seven years later, the results of this hunch have proven considerably more successful. This is LISP - the humbly named Laboratory Integrated Systems Prototype - a product of UCR's unique culture of integrating undergraduate, graduate and faculty resources in major research projects.

LISP is capable of continuously converting any carbon-based material. From grass clippings to car tires to polyurethane form into very clean diesel fuel while creating no pollution and generating excess steam for electric power.

Joseph Norbeck, Yeager Families Professor of Engineering, Bourns College of Engineering, UC Riverside:   We had four very bright undergraduates that came to me and said we'd like to work on a project on energy for our capstone course on engineering and design. And I had an idea of modifying the system that failed in what we consider to be a more versatile and unique way. Overall, the process consists of four steps. The first step is what we call steam pyrolosis - and I use the analogy that it's like putting tough meat in a pressure cooker and heating it for a while and it gets soft. That prepares the material for when you bring in hydrogen, it converts it very quickly to methane. So, the next step is to take the methane and do what's called steam reforming to convert that to CO and hydrogen and then that you put into a catalyst and you make liquid fuel. 

So the challenge to the students was to see if this would work. We didn't have any laboratory to do that, but they had computer models that we were going to utilize and off they went. Well, after the two quarters, I remember sitting there in the audience while they made their presentation in which they said, "if you take half of the wood that goes to a landfill, we can replace a major portion of diesel fuel in L.A. from waste and we can do it for sixty-five cents a gallon." And I then immediately said back to them, "well, you've got an A+ in the class and secondly, put an invention disclosure on this."

Narrator:        Engineering undergraduates have been central to the success of the LISP project since the beginning. Helping to solve myriad technical difficulties in the effort to successfully integrate LISP's complex series of chemical reactions.

Eden Haile, CE-CERT, UC Riverside:        This job gave me an opportunity, everything I learned in class, to apply in real life. My job was to run this and see all the limitations that it has and what we can improve on for a newer reactor and a bigger reactor. Because one of the reasons we wanted to improve this is because our future plan is to hopefully build a pilot plan, so what I was doing is giving them all the results. Based on these results we were able to calculate the new diameter height and all these things that it's necessary to build a new reactor.

Narrator:        Professor Chan Seung Park, a senior partner in the project, helped solve one of the most difficult of LISP's potential problems - maintaining high pressure throughout the system, while taking in raw material and producing fuel continuously.

Chan Seung Park, CE-CERT, UC Riverside:          It looks like a very simple thing, but actually this is most hardest engineering challenge because our reactor is very high pressure and our feed in our world is just one atmosphere, so we have to overcome the pressure difference and so we ended with make a slurry with the water, then we can pump it. There is so many kinds of technology already developed for the pumping against the high pressure, so we decide to use that technology so that it works.

Narrator:        LISP holds great promise for an energy hungry world and has the potential for drastically reducing household, industrial and human waste as well.

Chan Seung Park:      This is the shredded tire coming from the abandoned tire, this is the agricultural residue, especially the bean. This is the wood waste, we shredded wood waste in the particle and we try to gasify it. This is the polyurethane foam coming from the car seat. They use the polyurethane foam for the cushion of car seat. This is the - if you go to the wastewater treatment, there is VATS of sludge, the deposit in the facility. We take this sludge and we convert the valuable fuel. This is coal. Coal is regarded as the inferior fuel compared to the oil because it is solid, but we convert this solid coal into the liquid fuel.

Joseph Norbeck:        This technology can be used throughout the world and if you have a country such as Thailand, some areas of South America that have a lot of biomass, you now have a readily-available feedstock generated from removing CO2 with sunlight to make fuel, so you don't have a net impact on global climate change such as CO2 emissions. So, it's pretty exciting, promising technology that started with a failure and four undergraduates doing a project to graduate. And it's been an interesting experience for us as an organization and it demonstrates the quality of our students. \

Narrator:        For UC Riverside, this is Jim Brown reporting.