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Fill ‘er up (with plants)

Innovation rarely happens in isolation. Collaboration is the key to answer­ing big questions, and one of the biggest questions of the 21st century is: What are our most viable, most sustainable options to oil and gas?

Jeffrey Bergthorson did post-doc work on high-speed supersonic combustion, but by the time he joined McGill in 2006 he was thinking more and more about alternative fuels. His dean thought it might be a good idea to talk to Don Smith, a plant science professor who does a lot of work on crops that emit less—and trap more—greenhouse gases.

Introducing BioFuelNet

That was in 2006. Six years later, Smith became the Scientific Director and CEO of a new research network that wants to see biofuels account for a quarter of Canada’s transportation fuel usage by 2032. To help reach that goal, Smith made sure to bring Bergthorson on board.

The McGill-based BioFuelNet is a collection of academics and industrial partners from across Canada that’s working fast to wean the country off oil. (The project funded under the Government of Canada’s Networks of Centres of Excellence program.) The researchers are breeding inedible, low-impact crops, figuring out how to convert those crops (and even waste products from agriculture, forestry and your dinner plate) into fuels—and people like Jeffery Bergthorson, who’s leading the BioFuelNet Utilization Theme, are designing efficient engines to burn them.

Working in McGill’s Alternative Fuels Lab, Bergthorson is tweaking jet engines and gas turbines in order to get the biggest waste-into-energy bang for the buck. The question is not whether alternative fuels burn — we already know that any hydrocarbon burns in the heat and pressure of an engine. Rather, Bergthorson studies how they burn. How do their physical and chemical properties affect the performance of the engine? And does nasty stuff come out of the proverbial tailpipe?

Burning questions

Bergthorson himself is experimenting with different blends of alternative fuels, to see what happens to the sequence of chemical reactions that converts fuel and air into carbon dioxide and water. This includes extinction behaviour (how easy it is to blow out the flame), flame speed and stability; type and quantity of emissions; fuel droplet evaporation; and reignition at low temperatures. Bergthorson has also adopted an experimental and modelling approach that allows him to assess the effect of industrially relevant turbulence levels on the flame without using an actual combustor — and without cramming a jet engine into his lab. The results will inform other research work to integrate alternative fuels into transportation and power generation systems and help develop new engine designs that improve efficiency and reduce emissions.

“The first two things a customer cares about when buying an engine are cost and reliability,” says Bergthorson. “But increasingly, they are asking if they can burn alternative fuels. Bio-derived fuels are now being shown to be engine-compatible and carbon friendly. The industry is already certifying hydro-treated vegetable oils, thereby opening the doors for widespread adoption.” Is a biofuel world around the corner? It’s going to take some work, but it just may happen sooner than you think.