A novel green technology in the making

By Associate Professor Chua Han Bing

A five-member research team at Curtin University, Sarawak Malaysia (Curtin Sarawak) has for the past four years been developing a novel green technology utilising oil palm biomass, an agricultural by-product that is abundant and readily available in Sarawak.

According to the team’s chief investigator, Associate Professor Alexander Gorin, this new technology promises a cheap source of energy for industries in the state and simultaneously, will help ensure the sustainability of its natural resources.

Using CFD simulation and HYSYS plant software, the team designed and built an innovative state-of-the-art prototype Compartmented Fluidised Bed Gasifier (CFBG) capable of processing up to 500 kilogrammes of oil palm shells per day for synthetic gas (syngas) production and power generation.

This new CFBG innovation has the cutting edge over conventional designs where pure oxygen is replaced with air and the external heat requirement for the gasification is provided indirectly from the compartmented combustor. The team is confident that the new design is able to cut normal operational costs by 25%.

The prototype facility could indeed be a launch-pad for a whole range of applications that would greatly benefit the local economy.

In addition to generating significant earnings from abundant palm waste and the production of syngas, it could mean an entirely new source of power generation and additional option for rural electrification in the country.

It could also make the fueling of hydrogen vehicles more affordable, which would be a boon to the motor industry and ultimately help reduce green house gases.

The team’s research has been made possible largely by funding from the Ministry of Science, Technology and Innovation (MOSTI), the Malaysian Palm Oil Board (MPOB), Shell Malaysia and Curtin University, as well as the collective efforts of the highly-experienced and motivated members of the team.

From the prototype CFBG, the reactor physical behavior was studied. Various key parameters were collected as design inputs to determine the possible operating range of a planned pilot plant.

Made from transparent Perspex, the reactor allowed visual observation of the processes taking place inside. It also allows ease of modification of various parts of the reactor.

A key finding from the observations of the reactor was that the palm shell mixed perfectly with the inert and the inventory could be easily controlled.

CFD fluid software was used to stimulate the prototype, especially the reactor dynamic properties.

Given the positive experimental outcomes of the prototype, further 3D simulation was carried out, allowing the research team to anticipate the pilot plant’s physical behaviour in a wider operating range.

The team then used HYSYS plant and process software to design the pilot plant’s major and minor equipment. From the prototype and simulations, the pilot plant was designed for a 500-kilogramme-per-day palm shell feed.

The pilot plant, completely manufactured locally, was installed and commissioned at the Curtin Sarawak campus in June 2007. It is currently capable of generating syngas with nearly 70% yield.

Phase II of the research will focus on syngas enhancement technology (SET) to generate high quality syngas at a sustainable cost.

Although the project is still in the research and development stage, initial results have been most positive and indicate a potential for the technology to be commercialised in the near future. It will be most timely given the increasing trend of oil prices.

The success of the research will also position Malaysia as a global leader in producing first and second generation biofuels.

Some 17 papers and articles on the project have been published by the research team in research journals and conference publications at both national and international level.

Simulation studies with CFD and HYSIS software

Combo picture of the pilot plant at Curtin Sarawak


Isometric view of the CFBG

Conventional Palm Oil Process Route: Oil-based Economy

Potential Commercialised Palm Oil Process Route: Green Economy

Associate Professor Dr. Chua Han Bing was formerly the Director, School of Engineering and Science from 2006 to 2008 before re-assuming a teaching position. Prior to that, he served as Deputy Director and also the Head of the Common First Year Engineering programme. He is a biochemist by profession. He lectured and also served as the Head of the Science Faculty of a leading college in West Malaysia for a number of years before joining Curtin University in 2000 as a senior lecturer in Chemical Engineering. His research interests are in the areas of biotechnology, and a number of his current research projects focus on using microbes to enhance composting of industrial and municipal wastes. Dr. Chua can be contacted +60 85 443939 or by e-mail to chua.han.bing@curtin.edu.my.