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DOE awards $1M to UMass Lowell-led team to develop renewable fuel additives from wood byproducts; Co-Optima project

The US Department of Energy (DOE) has awarded a three-year, $1 million grant to a team of researchers led by a UMass Lowell mechanical engineering professor that is working to develop renewable fuel additives from sawdust and other wood byproducts.

The project is part of the Department of Energy’s Co-Optima initiative to develop fuel and engine innovations that work together to maximize vehicle performance and fuel economy.

The additives, which are derived from sustainable raw materials, will help offset the use of traditional fossil fuels in internal combustion engines in cars and trucks as well as in steam turbines for power generation. Our lab’s goal is to increase energy efficiency, reduce emissions and identify other potential sustainable fuels and chemicals of the future.

—Hunter Mack, team leader

The additive is intended to be mixed with traditional petroleum-based fuel such as diesel to displace some volume of diesel with something renewable and help cut down the vehicle’s carbon footprint, said Mack. The biofuel-blend formulation will offer the same engine performance, but will ideally be easier and more environmentally friendly to produce.

The UMass Lowell-led project also includes counterparts from the University of Maine and Florida-based Mainstream Engineering Corp. and was selected this fall by the DOE as part of its $80-million investment nationwide to support early-stage research of advanced vehicle technologies.

Sawdust is just one type of woody biomass being used in the research. “Woody biomass” refers to forest trees and woody plants, as well as their byproducts from wood manufacturing and processing that are not suitable for purchase or sale and don’t have an existing local market. Sawmills and other forest industry operations “have a lot of leftover biomass that needs to be disposed of, so we’re offering a way to convert it into something useful and even profitable,” Mack said.

Scrap wood from the construction industry could be useful in the future, but, for the time being, the team cannot use it.

We’re applying precise chemical reaction engineering to the process for producing the additives, so the composition of the raw materials is important. Construction wood might have other chemicals mixed in it, such as those used in pressure-treated lumber, and that would change how the reaction goes. So at least in the short term, we’re focusing solely on sawdust, which is a well-defined biomass stream.

—Hunter Mack


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