Past Projects

Invasive Species Biomass Valorization Through Pyrolysis and Torrefaction for Energy and Biochar

New Mexico AMP Undergraduate Research

Collaborator: Rachael Ryan (Wildlife Diagnostics, LLC and NMSBA)

Students: Leland Sharp, Andrea Salazar and Graham Hoffman


Small-Scale Low-Temperature Multiple Effect Distillation for Brackish Groundwater Desalination Using Heat from Biomass Pyrolysis

NSF Innovation Corps

Team Members: Ali Amiri, Zetdi Sloan, Jorge Ramos

Students: Ali Amiri, Sterling Ellis, Mike Smith

Multiple Effect Distillation Unit


Waste Processing with Pyrolysis to Recover Water and Nutrients

Manned spaceflight outside of low-Earth orbit will require significant advances in closing loops within life support systems, especially the recycling of solid and liquid wastes to produce oxygen, food, and fresh water. Long-term (2011-2029) technology development goals for these functions include recovering more water from more waste streams, transitioning from waste stabilization and reduction to material recovery, and enabling food production. Pyrolysis, or heating in a limited oxygen environment, is one waste conversion method that has received considerable attention due to its potential to enable improvements in all three functions. In this project,  we are developing a moderate-temperature slow pyrolysis reaction system that can transform solid waste and brine from the water treatment system into a nutrient-rich crop growth medium, while recovering water and carbon dioxide. The final overall process would consist of eight steps: 1) waste is chopped and mixed, 2) waste is heated and dried under a nitrogen flow, and produced water collected, 3) waste is pyrolyzed at 350-500°C under nitrogen, 5) produced volatiles are isolated then combusted in another chamber, 6) water and carbon dioxide are recovered from the combustion process, 7) brine from the water management system is added to the cooled biochar, and 8) produced biochar is used as a growth medium for food production.

Members off the NASA Waste team in front of the 5 L slow pyrolysis reactor with tube furnace

Bio char produced from pyrolyzing NASA waste

Sample container with produced Bio-Oil from pyrolysis



Team looking into using char produced as a growing medium


NASA Kennedy Space Center Technology Advancing Partnership

Collaborator: KC Carroll (Plant & Environmental Sciences)

Students: Mansour Saberi, Sarah Lyons, Jacey Payne, Nayan Bhakta


NDMA Adsorption Isotherms on Chars Derived from Biomass

NASA White Sands Test Facility

Collaborators: David Rockstraw and Paul Andersen (Chemical & Materials Engineering)

Students: Dave Amedei, Jere Freeh and Jose Rodriguez

The overall goal of this project is to test the ability of activated carbons made from pecan waste to adsorb N-nitrosodimethylamine (NDMA) from water at dilute (parts per trillion) concentrations. This is the first part of a longer study to explore lower-energy and lower-cost alternatives to UV-degradation treatment of NDMA at the White Sands Test Facility for remediation of groundwater.


Design of Pyrolyzer-Desalination Unit Interface for Distributed Biochar and Clean Water Production

NSMU IEE Tier 1 (1/1/14-6/30/15)

Collaborator: Dr. John Idowu (Plant & Environmental Sciences)

Students: Ali Amiri, Yunhe Zhang, Brent Carrillo, Flavia Mitsue Yamashita, Maribel Dominguez

Communities located in rural, arid areas face the challenge of finding local and affordable energy supplies to operate water desalination equipment. A renewable distributed energy source that has great potential for water desalination and has yet to be explored is biomass: agricultural wastes, forestry residues, residential yard waste, byproducts from biofuels production, etc. Pyrolysis, a thermochemical process that transforms biomass through heating under limited-oxygen conditions, can be used to produce solid (char), liquid (bio-oil or tar), and non-condensable gas (syngas) products. The liquid and gas products can be combusted to drive the pyrolysis process, and to provide heat and power (through a turbine generator) to a desalination process. The solid char product can be applied to soils as biochar to improve soil quality and soil water holding capacity. In this case, biomass pyrolysis could provide both the energy to operate a water desalination unit and a soil amendment to improve agricultural water use efficiency.

This project is a two component proof-of-concept study for biomass pyrolysis connected to water desalination. The first component is the design of a biomass pyrolyzer coupled with a multiple effect distillation (MED) unit for the desalination of brackish water. The design includes unit selection and sizing, and development of an interface to connect the two units. The second component is the lab-scale production of biochar from locally-available biomass residues and the measurement of soil moisture retention profiles for biochar-amended New Mexico soils.


Construction of MED Component of Pyrolyzer-Desalination Unit for Resiliency Testing

NSMU IEE Tier 1 (8/1/14-7/31/15)

Students: Ali Amiri, Yunhe Zhang, Willian Do Prado, Brent Carrillo


Production of Renewable Jet Fuel Molecules from Fast Pyrolysis of Lignin and Lignin-Rich Biomass

Student: Feng Cheng

This project focuses on the utilization of lignin, the second most abundant component in lignocellulosic biomass. Fast pyrolysis, the very rapid heating of biomass in the absence of oxygen, can be used to produce significant amounts of a liquid energy product, bio-oil. Bio-oil is an acidic solution (pH 2~3) containing high concentrations of oxygen (more than 300 oxygenated compounds) and water (15–50 wt.%). High oxygen content and acidity in bio-oil accounts for its instability, and high water content contributes to its low heating value. These properties are not beneficial to the combustion and storage of bio-oil. However, bio-oil is composed of two phases: the water-soluble phase (containing compounds like methanol, acetic acid, and acetone) and the water-insoluble phase (containing phenol, alkylate, and aromatic derivatives). Since lignin is made of natural amorphous hydrophobic polymers of benzene propane units: p-coumaril, coniferyl and sinapyl, most of lignin derivatives end up in the non-aqueous bio-oil phase. This means that the lignin component of biomass may have several advantages for producing bio-oil-based transportation fuels compared to the cellulose or hemicellulose components, though little research has been done on lignin for this purpose.

We focus on jet fuel molecules because airplanes are not as energy-source-flexible as stationary power, ground vehicles or watercraft: ships can use wind or nuclear power, cars can use solar power or electricity, but planes require liquid hydrocarbon fuels. Bio-jet fuel, if it is to be used with current plane engines and infrastructure, must have key properties including a composition of mainly n-, iso-, and cyclo-paraffins, with approximately 25% of aromatics and naphthalenes, a carbon range of about C9-C16, a tight freezing point range, stability for storage, and low emissions. Therefore, this is much work needed to produce the desired fuel molecules from lignin through fast pyrolysis and bio-oil upgrading.