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Helping West Africa

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$10,000 Awarded for Scientist's Proposal


UMD student Mattew Aro working at NRRI.
NRRI scientist Matthew Aro tests the weight of torrified (or processed) cattails for its potential as biocoal.  

Matthew Aro, a scientist working at University of Minnesota Duluth Natural Resources Institute (UMD NRRI) and a University of Minnesota Ph.D. student, presented a project at the Dow Sustainability Innovation Student Challenge Awards (SISCA) in November 2012. The event was held at the University of Minnesota, and Aro received the $10,000 Grand Prize award. SISCA looks for innovation that encourages sustainable solutions to the world’s social, economics, and environmental problems.  

The project, being conducted in partnership with others at the University and elsewhere, Helping African people through Hydrothermal Carbonization of Typha Australis to create cooking and heating fuel, will transform an invasive plant into a fuel source. Typha australis is a destructive aquatic plant that is proliferating in rivers and lakes across West Africa. This plant is obstructing irrigation canals, blocking access to fishing, and destroying rice plots. It has clogged waterways, making transportation and commerce difficult. It causes stagnant water, which is damaging the health of local populations. Over 30 million people in West Africa are impacted by the invasive plant.

The project proposes to develop a transformational hydrothermal carbonization technology to convert Typha australis into energy-dense biocoal for cooking and heating fuel.

The hope is to get funding to demonstrate the technology on the pilot-scale in Mauritania, Africa. After that, the technology could go to commercial scale, in West Africa and, hopefully, elsewhere.

Aro is cooperating on this project along with key people and groups: Don Fosnacht (NRRI), Andriy Khotkevych (NRRI), Tim Hagen (NRRI), Peter Strzok (Agency to Facilitate the Growth of Rural Organizations), Mauritania Ministry for Rural Development and Cid International, and other organizations in Africa. “This project involves plant science, engineering, chemistry, economics, and social science disciplines,” Aro said. “To effectively complete a project like this, you have to know how to work effectively with people that have different backgrounds and expertise. This is a big project and requires a big team effort. I’m just one member of a larger team,” Aro stated.

The competition was open to full-time graduate and professional students. “I was planning on taking a class taught by Fred Rose at the U of M,” said Aro. “Rose was helping to organize the Dow competition at the university, and he suggested that I enter this project competition.” Six projects were submitted to the competition.

UMD Those Who Can, Duluth


Written by Jessica Noor. February 2013

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