Jan. 12, 2021

Schulich researchers hoping to turn harvest waste into energy gold

Straw and plant materials being transformed with help from the sun
Schulich researchers look to turn straw into energy
The UCalgary team is observing a photo-reactor that is being used for photoreforming reaction. Prof. Hu and Kibria group

When you imagine the landscape of southern Alberta, you likely think of the Rocky Mountains, the rolling foothills and the colourful patchwork of prairie agricultural lands.

Every fall, those fields of grass and grains are harvested for their seeds, while the straw is either left behind or baled up for animal feed.

Researchers at the Schulich School of Engineering are hoping none of that straw is wasted, as they make progress in using the power of the sun to convert that biomass into hydrogen fuel and value-added biochemicals.

Not only is it more efficient, they say, but it’s also more eco-friendly and lucrative.

Field of Dreams

Dr. Jinguang Hu and Dr. Md Golam Kibria are both assistant professors at Schulich and have been spearheading the research into turning plant material into energy. Their research at the University of Calgary is supported by Canada First Research Excellence Fund.

While biorefinery has been studied for more than four decades, the two have been working on an environment-friendly approach called “photobiorefinery,” which uses solar energy to break down biomass.

“We want to create renewable fuels as opposed to petro-chemicals,” Kibria said. “We are trying to create a sustainable process where we can use these biomass feeds and straws, which are mostly waste, and make them more valuable.”

With help from new technology from the Canadian Light Source (CLS) at the University of Saskatchewan, the research has led to some interesting findings which have been published by the American Chemical Society.

Lighting the Way

Hu notes that Alberta is at the centre of this kind of research because of how plentiful this kind of biomass is, but also because of the potential to expand to other materials in the future.

The pair sees this process being successful in this province.

“The good news is that, in Calgary, we get lots of sunlight in both summer and in winter,” Kibria said. “That’s where we get lots of energy to drive this reaction and that energy comes from sunlight.”

The next steps in their research include tuning the catalyst to “capture more of the visible light spectrum” and then scaling up with an eye to eventual commercialization.

“We are trying to align with the goals and objectives of moving towards a more-sustainable energy future,” Kibria concluded.