Prof. Thomas Avedisian, engineering, is part of a group that was granted $2 million by the Department of Energy to research biofuels.

October 25, 2018

Engineering Professor Part of Team That Received $2 Million Grant to Research Biofuel

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A Cornell professor believes biofuel can make fuel cleaner, and was recently part of  a team granted $2 million by the Department of Energy to research the future of biofuel use in diesel engines.

Prof. Thomas Avedisian, mechanical and aerospace engineering, hopes to answer whether enough biofuel can be made to support the transportation sector demand and how biofuel burns. The project, which will last an estimated three years, is a collaboration with researchers from Auburn University and the University of Alabama.

If the project is successful, Avedisian said biofuel has the potential to be mixed into transportation fuel. This more environmentally friendly fuel could decrease pollution caused by cars and trucks.

“Bottom line, our general feeling is that butyl acetate could be very beneficial as an additive to diesel fuel that could lower particulate emissions.,” Avedisian said.

Avedisian has never worked with the other researchers before, and was contacted by Yi Wang, assistant professor at Auburn University and principal investigator of the project, completely out of the blue.

“I was driving down to Baltimore and I got a call from the guy at Auburn, Yi Wang,” Avedisian told The Sun. “I pulled over and we began discussing technical issues on an idea he had about developing a new additive to diesel fuel.”

“I knew who he was, but I had never met him in person,” Avedisian added.

However, after answering Wang’s questions and reviewing the Department of Energy initiative, Avedisian agreed to apply for the project.

Each university will be tackling a different aspect of the project, and will share their findings among each other as the process continues.

The Cornell team, composed of Avedisian and several graduate students, is focused on looking into how butyl acetate, a type of biofuel additive also commonly used in candy flavoring, burns. Avedisian is testing from a more “fundamental way,” where the biofuel is tested outside of an engine.

The University of Alabama will test how biofuel reacts within the mechanical engine, while Auburn University, which is leading the project, will research ways to develop enough butyl acetate to meet the demands of the transportation sector.

The researchers hope to find a way for biofuel to be used in transportation fuel, but Avedisian anticipates difficulties in the research process. Researchers aren’t even sure the best way to burn the biofuel. Trying to predict the biofuel in the context of engine use is impossible, according to Avedisian.

“The problem is you can’t predict what goes on in a real system,” Avedisian said. “It’s almost prohibitively complicated to try and predict what goes on in an engine. You just can’t do it.”

But Avedisian has hope that his research will be environmentally and economically more helpful.

“The promise is there with significant potential to improve fuel economy and lower greenhouse gases,” he said.