Gifty Acquah, doctoral student in the School of Forestry and Wildlife Sciences, placed 2nd out of 30 in a poster competition for IGERT Trainees at a Workshop on Energy, Transportation, and Water Infrastructure at Iowa State University. Acquah is a trainee with the Auburn IGERT project “Integrated Biorefining for Sustainable Production of Fuels and Chemicals,” headed by Mario Eden, associate professor and chair of the Department of Chemical Engineering. Acquah’s advisor Brian Via, assistant professor in the School of Forestry and Wildlife Sciences and director of the Forest Products Development Center, is also affiliated with this IGERT project.
“I'm very pleased that Gifty's poster was recognized as one of the best among a field of NSF-funded graduate students. This is another fine recognition of the strength of Auburn's bioenergy team," said James Shepard, Dean of the School of Forestry and Wildlife Sciences.
IGERT Traineeships are highly competitive, offering funding and mentorship to doctoral students working in research areas within the scope of the university’s grant. Acquah received travel funding from both Auburn’s IGERT program and the Iowa IGERT to attend the workshop.
Auburn’s IGERT project focuses on all aspects of biorefining “from stump to pump,” and brings together expertise from all corners of the university. “It is completely interdisciplinary,” says Acquah. “We have people from chemical engineering, biosystems [engineering], forestry, rural sociology, business.”
Her own part of the puzzle involves biomass characterization. Biomass is heterogeneous, she says, so a refiner would need to know what they have on their hands before they could process it. The current lab process for determining the chemical properties of a biomass sample is time consuming and laborious. However, using a piece of equipment called a spectrometer, she hopes to develop a quick screening process that would help determine the best use of the biomass based on its properties.
“So when biomass comes in, we would like to say ‘this one has a high level of cellulose; maybe it would be better to use it for ethanol production. One has a lot of lignin, so it would be best for adhesives.”
The complete wet chemistry process to characterize one sample takes about 12 hours, she says. Her task is to do the lab work on a variety of biomass samples, then take a reading on the sample with near infrared spectroscopy and develop models to correlate the two. That way a refiner would have a way to quickly allocate a feedstock to the process that would best suit its composition.
Acquah’s prize winning poster is entitled “Rapid prediction of the thermochemical properties of forest fuels using near infrared spectroscopy.”