One researcher investigating the possible use of canola meal pellets as an eco-friendly alternative to coal and natural gas is one step closer to bringing this to fruition.
Dr. Ajay Dalai’s exploration of this for heat and energy has moved into its next phases – scaled-up pellet production and commercialisation.
His quest is to find ways to turn leftover materials from crop production, like canola meal, into biocoal.
He explained that this is already happening in the forest industry but not in agriculture, despite an “ample” biomatter supply.
“Eventually, the world is going to phase out coal because of pollution,” said Dalai, Canada research chair of Bio-energy and Environmentally Friendly Chemical Processing in the University of Saskatchewan (USask)’s College of Engineering.
In 2019, Canada produced over 18 million tonnes of canola, and 10 million tonnes came from Saskatchewan.
The oil extraction process leaves behind canola meal. According to researchers, this is about 60% of the original crop by weight.
Canada exports some canola meal and feeds about 40% to livestock.
The remainder is what Dalai sees as potential biocoal. He explained the challenge is to produce high-quality pellets suitable for storing and transporting to facilities where it can be burned to produce heat and power.
Dalai and colleagues have been utilising computed tomography techniques at the Canadian Light Source at USask to examine lab-produced pellets.
When he first visited a synchrotron in the U.S. about 25 years ago, Dalai saw “things nobody can see with the naked eye”.
“It ignited a passion in me to apply these techniques to biomaterial,” he explained.
“We need to know how they look on the inside, what the structure looks like,” he explained.
He explained that tomography allows us to assess the impact of different additives and different amounts of water on the mechanical strength of the pellet and the amount of energy produced when you burn it
His latest research is available to read in the International Journal of Hydrogen Energy.
His research demonstrates the optimal amounts of various additives that serve as binders and lubricants to create a canola meal pellet that will not absorb too much moisture or crumble when stored or transported.
Continuing, he said: “It is a recipe that is now ready to be tested in the real world.”
“We have been working for five or six years on this project. It is time to produce the pellets on a large scale to see the consistency of the product.”
The team’s pellet-making equipment has arrived. Working with industry partners, they will conduct an economic analysis of the canola meal pellets.
“Are we ready to formulate and produce on a large scale for export? No, but our dream will come true one day,” he stated.
As the upscaling continues, Dalai’s team will investigate alternative, lower-cost additives and apply their recipe to other biomaterials. These include canola hull, mustard meal and hull, and oat hull.
“Supplies are plentiful because we don’t have enough cattle in Saskatchewan to eat all of the biomass.”
Dalai is also interested in combining agriculture biomass with forest residue to create new formulations.
“The potential of using biomass for bioenergy is enormous and exciting,” commented Dalai.
Concluding, he said in addition to generating “significant” revenue for the agriculture industry, “we all have a responsibility to create an environment that will be good for our children and grandchildren”.