An IUPUI faculty member is working to reduce agricultural waste, promote sustainable energy and bring new technology for heating and cooking to remote villages all with one project.
Dr. Peter J. Schubert, Professor of Electrical and Computer Engineering with the Purdue School of Engineering and Technology at IUPUI, was awarded the 2020 Bantz-Petronio Translating Research into Practice (TRIP) Faculty Award in recognition of his work with his biomass conversion system. The award, established with a gift from IUPUI Chancellor Emeritus Charles Bantz and Professor Sandra Petronio, is given to faculty to recognize outstanding work translating research into practice that is geared toward positively impacting people’s lives within or beyond Indiana.
His system uses a biomass gasifier that is designed to break down crop residue and agricultural waste. But Dr. Schubert’s system uses high heat to break the waste into the simplest possible components, eliminating tar that can be toxic.
The gas created can then be put into use as electricity, and because it does not have tar, it can be used long-term without gumming up equipment, he said.
The system has four patents used by the university and one by Green Fortress Engineering, a company set up by the university for Dr. Schubert and for which he serves as CEO, providing funding that can be used for further research and creating jobs for students.
“That creates a pipeline for sustainable, new grant funding, while also encouraging innovation amongst graduate students to develop the next generation of technology,” Dr. Schubert said.
The technology could be extremely beneficial in other countries, including rural villages in sub-Saharan Africa, to produced heat and electricity for cooking. Currently, villagers often burn woody materials and manure indoors for cooking, which can cause respiratory issues for women and babies. The electricity, which is much more efficient, could also be used for education, communications, and other light industry.
Bringing electricity to those villages can also be life-changing for the girls who live there that are often in charge of gathering wood to burn for heat and cooking, giving them more time for education, Dr. Schubert said.
In addition, the remnants of the gasification process, known as biochar, can be used to make soil much more productive, boosting agriculture in those villages, he said. The system also has a built-in, touchscreen training system, allowing villagers to learn how to use it and build their skills, potentially using that knowledge to find other work, he said.
Research on the process, along with how to bring it to other countries, is ongoing, including partnerships with universities in other countries.
Dr. Schubert has also worked with multiple student groups, including Capstone projects by students in the O’Neill School of Public and Environmental Affairs, on ways the system could be used around the world.
Part of their research has been into how to commercialize the system for use in developed nations, including the U.S., along with Europe and southeast Asia. If farmers become interested in using the system, that would allow the costs to go down, and make it more feasible to bring the technology to underdeveloped countries, he said.
Dr. Schubert’s hope is to be able to bring the technology to remote villages in four years, but he expects the process will take longer. One of the biggest challenges is getting U.S. farmers interested in the system, since energy costs are low in the U.S., making the sustainable, efficient energy benefit a harder sell, he said.
That is one of the reasons he has reached out to other schools and departments at IUPUI to help with the project, bringing together a multidisciplinary approach to translating research into practice, he said.
“It’s important that we bring our whole campus together. There are so many different aspects to changing the world,” Dr. Schubert said.
“That’s the most fun for me, and why I love being a professor, telling students a portion of this story, and now you are working on something that seems small and focused, but it fits in this overarching vision. That really motivates our young people, inspires them to think big, and also focus on what’s at hand.”
Teresa Bennett, Assistant Vice Chancellor for the IUPUI Office of Community Engagement, nominated Dr. Schubert for the TRIP Award, called him one of the most visionary and forward-thinking faculty members she has worked with in her time at IUPUI.
“Peter exemplifies the importance and impact of translating research into practice, and why this award was created with scholars like Peter in mind. He understands the importance of blazing a trail – but never alone. He is collegial and embraces his roles as a mentor, teacher, and scholar. He inspires students and sets an example to other faculty members to make it their life’s work to impact lives and communities,” she wrote in her recommendation letter.