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Villanova Engineering Lab Engages Students in Bio-Oil Research

Villanova Engineering Lab Engages Students in Bio-Oil Research

Dr. Justinus Satrio and his research assistants are not afraid to get their hands – or lab coats – dirty. “No matter how many times I wash mine, even with bleach, I can’t get it clean,” says PhD chemical engineering student Nydia Ruiz-Felix. The stubborn stains she’s referring to are bio-crude oils, the desired end-product of research she is conducting with fellow graduate assistants Rene Garrido and Nicole Hammer. The three of them are working with a dozen undergraduates, including seven seniors and a handful of freshmen, sophomores and juniors. The entire project is being supervised by Dr. Satrio and Dr. Charles Coe, both assistant professors in the College’s Department of Chemical Engineering. 

Villanova University is part of a 14-member consortium led by the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Agricultural Research Service at the Eastern Regional Research Center in Wyndmoor, Pa. With $6.8 million in funding from the Department of Energy’s Biomass Research and Development Initiative, the government, industry and academic partners of the consortium are working on converting agriculture and forestry by-product materials into bio-oil. The three-year project aims to do research, development and demonstration on utilizing lignocellulosic biomass, i.e. switchgrass, forest wood wastes and animal manures for the production of bio-crude oil via a process called fast pyrolysis. For its part, Villanova has received $300,000 in funding to develop catalytic materials for use in the catalytic pyrolysis process and for upgrading bio-crude oil. The research is congruent with the initiatives that Villanova’s Biomass Resources and Conversion Technologies (BRCT) laboratory are currently focusing on.

“The first stage in our research is to screen different types of feed stocks to see how they work in the bio-process system,” explains graduate student Nicole Hammer. “All biomass is not created equal,” notes Dr. Satrio. Different forms — from paper mill sludge to mushroom substrate — offer varying quality and energy output as bio-oils. “The goal is to try to understand how biomass properties correlate to the quality of the bio-oil products,” says Dr. Satrio. At its most simple utilization, the bio-crude oil being produced can act as a heating oil replacement, but its heating value is low. The goal is to find catalysts which upgrade the end-product for use in gasoline and diesels, and ultimately discover a replacement for fossil fuels.

While Dr. Satrio is certainly pleased with the cutting edge research being conducted, he is equally happy to point out the many opportunities that exist for interdisciplinary collaboration in the BRCT lab. From the lab’s pyrolizer (“the workhorse”), built by a mechanical engineering student, to the biology department’s growing of switchgrass as energy feedstock, a variety of disciplines are involved in the process. Dr. Satrio is also delighted by the number of students, freshmen through seniors, engaged in the work. He finds, “They are driven and passionate about issues of sustainability and the environment.” Students who take part in his freshman mini-project “Biofuels and Sustainability” often stay committed to the work, volunteering their team throughout their undergraduate years and gaining valuable experience in the process. The BRCT lab serves as a prime example of what distinguishes an undergraduate Villanova engineering education from the competition – the opportunity for students, beginning in their first year, to learn from and work in the lab alongside graduate research assistants and their professors.

To learn more about research being conducted in Villanova’s Biomass Resources and Conversion Technologies laboratory, click here