Oct. 3, 2019

How can biofuels drawn from waste products benefit the planet? Master's students tackle this question and many more

Ground-breaking Master of Science in Sustainable Energy Development program has a new home in The School of Public Policy

Cameron Young is not one for pie in the sky. As one of 18 graduating students (and 54 full-time students) this November in the University of Calgary’s Master of Science in Sustainable Energy Development (SEDV), Young took a down-to-earth approach literally to his capstone project on biofuels derived from waste products.

“The new generation of advanced biofuels takes waste products and converts that into usable fuels,” says Young, who has a chemical engineering degree from McMaster University and will receive his master’s degree from the SEDV program in November.

“These waste products are forestry wastes out in the field that would otherwise be burned for management or fire prevention reasons, mill wastes or a combination thereof.” He says other usable material includes sewage sludge from wastewater treatment plants, waste from urban green bins, and agricultural waste.  

Plenty of opportunity for biofuels produced from waste

The science of biofuels is no longer about corn and barley. Growing crops for fuel is passé. “When George W. Bush was president, there was a lot of focus on corn converted to ethanol and biodiesel,” Young explains. “The energy return and environmental returns were dubious. In terms of saving greenhouse gases, you could at best break even.”

Biofuels derived from waste don’t carry the carbon footprint involved with using farmland to grow fresh produce for fuel instead of for food. And thanks to the potential offered by co-processing, Alberta is in an ideal position to be a leader in making waste-derived biofuels a reality for use in transportation. The prospect is so intriguing that Young says WestJet has already begun investigating how biofuels can be used to reduce airplane emissions.

Co-processing using existing refinery infrastructure in Alberta to produce biofuels from waste could help lower production costs and eliminate the need for expensive new infrastructure. “In a world where people want fuel to have a lower emissions impact, biofuel could be a supplement, because we use the same infrastructure,” says Young. “If you’re getting biofuel from municipal solid waste, it’s cheaper to produce it in Alberta.”

Capstone project looks at food waste

Manashri Shejwalkar isn’t one for pie in the sky, either. Well, maybe pie but not in the sky. Instead, she’d prefer to see that pie going to hungry Calgarians, and not into the trash. Shejwalkar, who earned a mechanical engineering degree in India, stumbled on what would eventually become her capstone project on food waste quite by accident.

“I was browsing on YouTube, and I saw a man dumpster-diving in New York for perfectly good food thrown away behind a grocery store. Coming from an Indian background, I am cognizant about not having enough food, and finishing everything on your plate at a meal,” Shejwalkar says.

For her capstone project, she researched the food-waste situation in small groceries and bakeries in Calgary. “Food has never been cheaper and we have access to strawberries year-round. We don’t think twice about throwing that strawberry away,” she says. “But if you (stop to think) that it travelled from Mexico, that it grew there and people put energy into growing it before it came to Calgary and is in your fridge, you’d probably stop wasting food a little bit.”

She learned that the Leftovers Foundation, a food rescue group, collects food that would otherwise be discarded by Calgary bakeries, stores and restaurants and delivers it to charities, and she’s brimming over with ideas for expanding the concept.

One approach she’s keen to see happen would involve pilot programs connecting food delivery on a broader scale with a community kitchen or soup kitchen where the products could be stored and cooked. Perishables, by their very nature, have been problematic when it comes to safely rescuing them before they’re destined for the trash.

Ugly food gains popularity

She’s also enthusiastic about the ugly foods program, in which stores discount the price of fruits and vegetables that are misshapen, but are otherwise perfectly fine to eat. 

In one instance, Shejwalkar says, a supermarket gained a 24-per-cent increase in sales when it did a sampling drive of ugly fruits and vegetables and discounted them by 30 per cent. Shejwalkar envisions a program like this expanding to other products. She thinks it would be a great idea to help educate people about food waste by discounting foods when they reach a best-before date that’s three days away.

“Make people feel good about buying something that would (otherwise) go to waste,” Shejwalkar says. She also likes the idea of stores engaging composting facilities to collect discarded food, composting it and then returning it to the store for sale so the costs can be recovered. Of the growing interest among retailers in keeping food from being thrown away, Shejwalkar says, “I’m so glad a conversation is happening around it.”  

Students engage in innovative, quality research on sustainability

A slew of conversations are happening around a whole range of issues in the SEDV program, according to capstone course instructor Dr, Irene Herremans, PhD. She explains that students this year joined forces with “The City of Calgary on solar energy standards and barriers ... a petroleum exploration company wanting to determine how to have lesser impact in its South American drilling operations, a waste-water treatment system in a local county, waste collection at the University of Calgary, a new venture trying to commercialize reversible solid oxide fuel cell technology, a better water distribution system with Alberta Environment and Parks, assessment of carbon footprint for the Arctic Institute of North America, (and) a company working with petroleum workers transitioning into solar energy installations.”

Herremans explains that the students had the choice of working with an organization or developing their own research ideas: “We are proud of the innovative and quality research that the students engage in. This program provides an excellent opportunity for Alberta to be a leader in sustainable energy, whether renewable or non-renewable energy.”

About UCAlgary's Master of Science in Sustainable Energy Development

The University of Calgary’s Master of Science in Sustainable Energy Development (SEDV) is an interdisciplinary graduate program, established in 1996 with the participation of Schulich School of Engineering, Haskayne School of Business, Faculty of Law, and School of Architecture, Planning and Landscape (formerly the Faculty of Environmental Design).

SEDV is an unprecedented program designed for professionals and students who are seeking a broad-based and comprehensive education in sustainable energy. On April 1, 2019, the program moved to its new home at The School of Public Policy. The School will integrate and support what has been a very successful degree. With its new home, there will be tremendous opportunity to connect with the downtown community in the energy field, as well as great synergies within the Energy and Environment group at The School, and with ERGP. As of May, 2020, SEDV will be offered at the downtown campus.