UNT professor's latest invention heats up biofuel research

Jim Rogers
UNT faculty Sheldon Shi
Mechanical and Energy Engineering faculty Sheldon Shi

University of North Texas College of Engineering Department of Mechanical and Energy Engineering Professor Sheldon Shi and Associate Professor Haifeng Zhang have received a $482,905 grant from the United States Department of Agriculture to develop a high-temperature sensor that will aid in biofuel research.

“For this project, we’re going to build high-temperature sensors for use in a pyrolysis furnace. Pyrolysis is used to decompose organic materials, such as biomass, at high temperatures in an inert atmosphere. The sensors will detect gases released from the biomass during pyrolysis,” said Shi. “Right now, there are no sensors that can provide accurate readings and withstand such high temperatures, say over 1800 F (1000C).”

Shi says the current process for pyrolysis of biomass is to load the material into a furnace and “cook” it for a certain period of time at a certain temperature. But, the determination of the “cooking” parameters, such as temperature, time, etc., is based on experience and experimentation. Different materials require different parameters.  Shi also said that when the biomass changes, the cooking parameters may also need to be adjusted.

“At this time, it’s all guesswork,” he said. “We put the materials in, and after it cooks for, say, four hours, we take it out, and test it. Then, we’ll do another batch and test it and so on and so on in order to find the optimal parameters. If we have high-temperature sensors in the furnace, we can monitor the gases in real time.

 “It’s a tool that could not only help researchers determine whether or not the biomass needs to cook longer but also create a more efficient and cost-effective process by eliminating the repetitive and unnecessary testing.”