Carnegie Mellon University
January 14, 2015

CEE Senior Studies Renewable Energy Options for South Africa

CEE Senior Studies Renewable Energy Options for South Africa

Briquette samples created by converting milled biomass.Briquette samples created by converting milled biomass.

CEE senior Yang You (CEE '15) spent her summer in Switzerland at the École Polytechnique Fédérale De Lausanne (EPFL) researching the logistics of a biorefinery plant to be built in South Africa. We recently caught up with her to hear about her summer experience.

CEE: What did you do over the summer?

Yang: I worked with the head of the Bioenergy and Energy Planning Resource Lab. The project that I was looking at specifically was setting up this biorefinery in South Africa, all the logistics, the cost, what it takes to move the biomass that's produced in the field and transport it to the biorefinery itself.

The feedstock we were looking at was sugar cane. The sugar is harvested away from the field and what's left in the field is the biomass of the plant. There's a lot of energy that can be harvested from it, so we were looking at transporting that. There are a lot of factors that go into it.

CEE: What else was involved in the project?

Yang: We did some chemical lab tests on some samples of this biomass. Another project that I worked on was testing the physical properties of it. I took the biomass and compacted it, used different compacting pressures. By varying that, I was able to see what the durability was and what the content was. Compacting it like that makes it easier to transport.

CEE: How did you get involved in this project?

Yang: CMU has a partnership with EPFL. They came in the fall when I was a junior to give a presentation on this program - what they're expecting, how to apply. You go online and see what lab or professor you would be interested in working with and you can preference three of them. They started this internship program last year, so I was in the first batch of students to go there.

CEE: What CEE classes or faculty helped prepare you for this project?

Yang: Environmental Engineering gave me the chemistry background to understand it. It took me a while to understand how the different inputs and outputs go through. There are a lot of outputs or co-products that are produced. They walked me through it; the chemistry behind it gets very complicated.

CEE: How do you think this experience has influenced your career goals?

Yang: I realized that research isn't necessarily the path for me. You don't really get to see the results of what you do immediately. I want to explore something in industry or consulting, where it's fast-paced and I can see the direct results of my work.

CEE: What skills did you pick up or develop while working on this project?

Yang: I would say designing an experiment. You need to set your variables and your constraints, what you can or can't do, and then expect any type of results. Things can be very unexpected in research in the real world.

CEE: What did you find to be the most surprising or interesting part of this project?

Yang: I really enjoyed the topic itself. I didn't fully understand the logistics behind it and how the co-products were created from the biomass, but I asked my professor and he sat down and explained the chemistry behind it. Some of these co-products are fuels that can be used to fuel the biorefinery itself, so in a sense, you can see it as net-zero. It's a very sustainable process where you can use what it produces as input to power it.

Yang You hiking the alpsCEE: What was your favorite part of this project?

Yang: My professor and the grad students have a lot more experience than me; they're really experts in their field. To have them mentor me specifically was really cool. I had help from other people in the lab, but to be given that project to work on independently was a really cool experience. There were about 25 interns in my program who were all working on their own specific projects and all different types of labs. They were all very passionate about their research areas - it was really cool to learn off of them.

(Pictured right: Hiking in Zermatt with other interns with the Matterhorn in the background.)

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