'Growing Impact' podcast discusses making fuels from waste

February 2, 2023

Editor’s note: This article originally appeared on Penn State News. It featured Jacqueline O’Connor, associate professor of mechanical engineering.

UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. — The latest episode of the Growing Impact podcast features a project focused on turning agricultural and municipal wastes into bioproducts, primarily low-carbon biofuels. On the podcast, Jacqueline O’Connor, associate professor of mechanical engineering in the Penn State College of Engineering, shares about her project, titled “Quantifying Biomass Intra-Particle Transport to Enhance Biofuel Synthesis and Combustion,” in which she is investigating hydrochars, a proposed replacement for coal. 

“The goal of this project is to better understand the structure of solid fuels that are made through a process called hydrothermal carbonization, a laboratory process that replicates the process that the Earth uses to make coal,” O’Connor said. “With a few surprisingly cheap catalysts, you can get really high-value energy-dense products out of this process in a few hours with a relatively low energy input.”  

According to O’Connor, bioproducts improve the world from a carbon perspective in two big ways.  

“One, they provide a pathway for waste to be utilized,” she said. “The second great benefit is replacing fossil fuels with lower carbon-intensity fuels.”  

O’Connor said she strongly believes that fuels will still be necessary for at least a century, if not more into the future. 

“If you look at the energy infrastructure that we have right now, over half of the energy we use is in fuels,” she said. “Electricity or batteries are really good for some applications, but they're not going to solve all the problems. So, the question is: How do we make chemical energy carriers, or fuels, as efficiently as possible, utilizing those waste streams? And then, how do we use all the good work that people have done upstream and burn the fuel is as efficiently as possible?” 

Growing Impact is a podcast by the Institutes of Energy and the Environment (IEE). It features Penn State researchers who have been awarded IEE seed grants and discusses their foundational work as they further their projects. The podcast is available on multiple platforms, including AppleGoogleAmazon and Spotify.  


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