Lulin Jiang and Charles Dowdell
Season 6 - Episode 644
What if communities could reduce air pollutants in landfills and convert waste into energy? Baylor and the City of Waco are partnering on a competitive project to bring this idea to life. In this Baylor Connections, Lulin Jiang, assistant professor of mechanical engineering, and Charles Dowdell, chief sustainability officer for the City of Waco, share how this partnership could pay dividends for the Greater Waco area.
Derek Smith:Hello and welcome to Baylor Connections, a conversation series with the people shaping our future. Each week we go in depth with Baylor leaders, professors, and more discussing important topics in higher education, research and student life. I'm Derek Smith, and today we are discussing a unique project between Baylor University and the City of Waco. Baylor and the city are partnering on a National Science Foundation Civic Innovation Challenge Project to develop climate smart, waste energy, fuel combustion at the Waco Landfill to help reduce methane and other air pollutants and transform waste into clean energy. Baylor and Waco are among the 19 teams who recently advanced to the next stage of the NSFs Challenge, earning a $1 million pilot project grant with the hopes of advancing to the next stage. Today's guests are Dr. Lulin Jiang and Charles Dowdell. Dr. Jiang serves as Assistant Professor of Mechanical Engineering at Baylor with a focus on advanced atomization and combustion and laser diagnostics for flow investigation. Charles Dowdell serves as Chief Sustainability Officer for the City of Waco and is a co-principal investigator on the project with Dr. Jiang. Well, lots of exciting things happening. Really glad to have you both with us today, Charles, Dr. Jiang, thanks so much for joining us on the program.
Charles Dowdell:Thank you.
Lulin Jiang:Thank you so much.
Derek Smith:Wonderful to have you here. And this is a project we really want to break down. It's a cool project and a cool opportunity. Let's start, Dr. Jiang from a very high level, when you think about long-term goals, what are the long-term goals and benefits of this project?
Lulin Jiang:Thank you so very much for asking this profound question. Actually, I just came back from the kickoff meeting of this project from DC, and there I met a lot of pioneers who actually are those program managers of this program who enabled those innovation projects. So they share the vision in which is quite aligned with ours. So the vision is how to leverage the technique developed in academia to be driven by the real needs of the civic people, like the local communities, and then how to further enhance our technology and to benefit people. And specifically for our waste to energy project in such a changing climate environment, especially a lot of local people, including myself, have significantly suffered from the winter storm way in 2021 in Texas.
Lulin Jiang:So we were really motivated by that and we hope that this technology with high energy resilience and also cost effectiveness can really potentially enable the clean energy from waste with high fuel flexibility and also that can bring people the future and without suffering those tragic events in such a changing climate.
Derek Smith:That's amazing.
Lulin Jiang:So hopefully we're envisioning that this project can be used, not just in the local communities, but collaborating with industry, with government. We can collaborate the technique to benefit people in the society at large. Yeah. Thank you.
Derek Smith:Well, you talk about that partnership, we get to talk to you about that right here. Charles, for the City of Waco. What are some of the long-term benefits to advancing this project?
Charles Dowdell:Well, thank you for that question. Clearly, the most apparent benefit is the reduction of the growing concentrations of greenhouse gases in the Earth's atmosphere. These concentrations have continued to rise dramatically since the industrial revolution, and they're only showing signs of increasing concentrations. That's led to things like extremes in weather from hotter than usual to colder than usual, and more radical movements of the jet streams such as the creation of atmospheric rivers that bring damaging weather. A lot of the interest area that I have, including participation at events such as the Green Communities Conference with Dr. Sasha Ucinco and Dr. Melinda Coogan, have also looked at, I would call it non intended impacts to our earth's atmosphere. And those affect things like viruses and endocrine disruptors and other things that cause impacts to our population and to our ecosystem. So since then onset of industrial times in the 18th century, human activities have raised atmospheric CO2 by 50%, and this human induced rise is greater than the natural increase observed over the last 220,000 years and possibly the last 800,000 years. This is based on rock samples and actually direct observation by NASA satellites. So the concentration of methane in the atmosphere is more than doubled over the past 200 years. And NASA scientists estimate this is increased, is responsible for baby up to 30% of global warming, and therefore Ms. Lulin's research work on this project is critical to helping the community deal with some of these changes to the earth's atmosphere.
Derek Smith:That's great. And as we described this, I think two things that stood out to me when I read about this were obviously, reducing greenhouse gases, reducing pollutants, and converting potentially waste into energy. If you describe that, if you're talking to family members who say, "What is it you're doing?" Are those two things that people take away or what are some other key aspects of this beyond that?
Lulin Jiang:That's a very good question actually. Yeah, to talk to a family member, I probably will first briefly mention that our project will help to enable clean air and also clean energy with high cost effectiveness and resilience. And a little bit more specifically as Mr. Dowdell just mentioned, so actually, if we don't do anything into the landfill, actually it will automatically discharge the methane gas. Actually, landfill gas emissions including major component methane into the air. Actually, methane is nearly 30 times higher global warming potential compared to carbon dioxide. So we need to distract methane by flaring, but unfortunately, the existing flaring system also emit other pollutants like soot, like unburned hydrocarbons and nitric oxides. So those are all bad for human health. So I have to just probably briefly introduce them that by integrating the Baylor's technologies that we can offer the clean air around the landfill and for the local community. Furthermore, we can also convert those burnt gases into chemical energy, heat [inaudible 00:07:22], and for power generation to bring resilient energy in extreme climate event such as winter storm worry. And also in this way, generated from waste so the cost will be definitely more affordable.
Derek Smith:Visiting with Dr. Lulin Jiang and Charles Dowdell. And Dr. Jiang, let's dive into the science here just a little bit, the engineering aspect. The idea of exchanging waste for energy, converting, it has been around, but you're bringing a different approach to us. Could you tell us what's unique about that approach that with your work and in partnership with Baylor and the City of Waco? What's unique about what we're seeing here?
Lulin Jiang:That's a very good question, very insightful. Actually, the uniqueness of our technology, briefly, that is due to the high fuel flexibility. So for combustion, so to get clean combustion and then clean energy, that has to be complete combustion. However, that is based on different aspects such as fuel air composition and also fuel air mixing in terms of fundamental science. So therefore, in our team, we are bridging the fundamental combustion science into the applied areas and trying to modify those components that can improve the fuel air mixing, that can also physically change how the fuel air interacting, and then to result in the different chemical reactions, different chemical kinetics, and then to enable complete and efficient combustion with near zero emissions. Yeah.
Derek Smith:This is one project of many you do. How does this tie into your broader research? If you were describing to a group of high school students what your research focus is, what would that be so we can kind of see how this fits in?
Lulin Jiang:That's a very good question. So actually, yeah, so if I would be talking to high school students, so I will introduce that actually in our group, we study field flexible combustion by designing different thermal fluid systems and also components for thermal fluid systems such as combustion system for jet engines, for stationary power generation, gas turbine engines. So for those aspects, so we are trying to design or transform the conventional components to fundamentally change the physical and chemical process related to the combustion process and to enable the fuel flexible burning.
Derek Smith:A lot of what you do, is it computer modeling? Where might we find you doing this research?
Lulin Jiang:That's a very good question. So mainly our group, we do experimental work, so that's how we're bridging the fundamental to the applied research because we also tested them. But of course, computational modeling is highly significant. So in our group we are doing some of that, but we're also collaborating with other experts. And I have collaborators from different regional areas like from South Carolina and also from academia, from industry like Converger. We have been working with them as well to integrate the computational modeling and to also further understand how this process can be modified physically and then how that will affect the chemical process integration.
Derek Smith:That's great. This is Baylor Connections. We are visiting with Dr. Lulin Jiang, assistant professor of mechanical engineering at Baylor, and Charles Dowdell, chief sustainability officer for the City of Waco. So Charles, she comes to you and you hear about this project and you see the potential in it, and then there's a lot of ways that cities can gain funds to find improvement. This is a unique thing, the National Science Foundation, there's a competitive aspect to this. So she comes to the idea, you like it, from the City of Waco's perspective what then? What's next once you say, "Yeah, I think we want to go after this."
Charles Dowdell:Thank you for asking that. The city does have resources if it chose to do its own research work on this, but our executive leadership as well as our city council, wants us to collaborate on projects like this that fit the goals actually stated by our leadership team as well as our city council, one of which is resiliency and sustainability. So the way I've always thought about this project is, look, our planet is this massive rock that yes, it does have solid masses and it has biological masses and it has oceans. And so amongst all of that, the earth does have the ability to absorb issues, gases like carbon dioxide. And so you can see the trends over the past, well, 800,000 years according to NASA. And you see a cyclical up and down of those gas concentrations ranging from what's called normal levels, around 200 milligrams per liter. And it's gone up during periods of extreme vulcanism as well as perhaps some meteorological impacts. But since about 1870, that concentration has risen without going back down. So what causes the concentrations to go down is the absorption of these gases by our earth's forests as well as our earth's oceans. And it's apparent that they no longer have the ability to absorb these gases, and it means that, we as stewards of the planet, must do what's necessary to reduce those. And I'm just happy to be part of Ms. Jiang's team.
Derek Smith:And this is a competitive project. Right? You have to get through phase one, then you've made it to the pilot project phase, one of 19 teams who did so. So question for either one of you, what aspects does the competitive nature have? How does that impact the work you do? Because you're trying to be the best you can, but you're also competing against other teams, if you will, they're trying to do the best they can.
Lulin Jiang:Thank you so much, this is a great question. Yes, it is a competitive competition and we were very honored to be able to be selected. So basically, to me, this is the initial investment of these type of projects. That's why even the stage two is called pilot project. So that is among funded by funding agencies such as NSF and which also partner with Department of Energy, and Department of Homeland Security, and also USDA. So I believe we were able to get into the stage one because the very strong connection and understanding between the city and the Baylor University and definitely the strong support from the local community. So I was very honored to be invited into several Waco sustainability board meetings. So I was very amazed by how the other colleagues in the entire city, in the entire community, they were so insightful about the future, about the clean energy, and they're excited about that. That motivated me a lot. And also the second one, I believe is the technology. And the technology that is quite unique as you just mentioned, because compared to conventional combustion technology, which is highly sensitive to even slight fuel property variation. So our technology is highly fuel flexible. And definitely the wonderful team members like Mr. Charles Dowdell, he has been working on this relevant technology since 1980s. I, myself, have been learning from him since day one of the planning phase. And also the co-PI, Dr. Alex Yokochi, who's a chemical engineer and very prestigious in chemical process. And he actually brought in this wonderful idea of external combustion due to the specific compilation of landfill gas. So he brought in this external combustion idea. And we also have the other co-PI, like Dr. Youngne from the Environmental Science of Baylor, and she will help to do the high fidelity environmental modeling to say how this technology will affect the brain, very significant and profound impact locally, regionally, and nationally, and even internationally after this project. And we were very honored to be able to work with Dr. Perryman, who was a previous Baylor economics professor, and he will help with the economic impact estimation.
Derek Smith:Dr. Rick Perryman.
Lulin Jiang:Yeah. So I think in short, that means because of the wonderful connection and collaboration between the city and Baylor and the support of the Baylor family and also the unique techniques from each co-PIs, that really helped us to be aligned with vision of those funding agencies and then get into the stage two. Yeah, thank you.
Derek Smith:That's a strong multidisciplinary team right there that you all have. Yes, well, obviously, Charles, we want Waco, we want Baylor to win, if you will, but more importantly, to continue to advance in this. So let's look ahead. Obviously there's steps to be taken in the year ahead. What are some ways that the community, the people can, are there ways that the community can step alongside this and help advance this in ways that would make Waco and Baylor more likely to achieve that next step?
Charles Dowdell:Well, I can just speak from my own perspective. The multi fuel technology that Ms. Lulin is describing actually could impact many of the Waco area businesses that use various kinds of fuel as a means to convert it to heat. So you have issues like boilers that boil the sugars for candies and for various sodas and things. And so once you start thinking that, then you start to realize that this technology is not only transferable, but it would also be extremely useful and provide a great deal of technological advancement to folks that otherwise would just continue looking at the same thing. So I'm very excited about this research work and working with her and her team.
Derek Smith:What are the next steps, Dr. Jiang? One question would be, when will we know and are there other ways that people can be involved in helping us get there?
Lulin Jiang:That's a very good question. Actually, what you just asked is really the vision of the funding agency program managers. So they one day serves as initial investment and then the next phase. So one of the significant things for this power project is about the scalability and transferability. So the next step we were thinking is to maybe have startup company that will help us to further broaden the utilization of technology to benefit, not just the local community, but our dear labors and many other people in the country. And also we are collaborating with some potential industry partners. And actually, from this recent kickoff meeting, I was also introduced to other industry by the funding agencies, so that hopefully we will further scale up this project since waste to energy might be needed everywhere since waste is everywhere. So this project might help them simultaneously deal with waste management and also bring in the resilient energy with high cost effectiveness. Yeah.
Derek Smith:So we found out about the pilot project, that advancement in the summer. Is that when we would know about the next steps or how long does that deadline run?
Lulin Jiang:Thank you so much. So actually this is a very quick, rapid project. It's a 12 month project, which is quite even unique for the funding agencies. So that's why they call it civic innovation. So hopeful, not hopefully, we have to actually, we have to give some quantitative results by end of September next year because this project started in October this year. So we will have some quantitative results. And our team has already started some internal kickoff in planning and already started working on that. And we're quite confident to be able to deliver some quality results to the local community and then to the people who are quite interested in this. Thank you.
Charles Dowdell:I might add to Ms. Lulin's insightful and inspiring comments, but one of the things I should mention is that EVA has recently discovered that these candlestick flares that you see at all of these oil and gas fields are not as efficient as they thought. In fact, they produce a lot more pollution than had been initially conceived. So as far as scalability, this project will be a success. And in talking with some of the manufacturers of some of these devices, I think they're extremely interested in providing this technology, not only locally, but Texas is one of the bigger oil and gas states, but also maybe globally. So there's a great deal that would come out of the successful results of this program, and I'm just very grateful to Ms. Lulin for bringing this to my attention.
Derek Smith:Well, we would love to see Baylor and Waco together, be a leader in this area nationally and globally, and certainly think about the benefits to the community. That's exciting as well. Well, we have run out of time here, but I want to thank you both for taking the time, and I really hope that about a year from now we're visiting again, talking about the next steps. But in the meantime, we'll look forward to seeing the results of your work, the data, and the efforts to scale and advance this technology. And I want to thank you both for taking the time to join us today.
Charles Dowdell:Thank you for having us.
Lulin Jiang:Thank you so much.
Derek Smith:Wonderful to have you both. Charles Dowdell, Chief Sustainability Officer for the City of Waco, and Dr. Lulin Jiang, Assistant Professor of Mechanical Engineering at Baylor, our guest today on Baylor Connections. I'm Derek Smith. A reminder, you can hear this and other programs online at baylor.edu/connections. And you can subscribe to the program on iTunes. Thanks for joining us here on Baylor Connections.