Engineers and scientists at West Virginia University are developing an advanced hydrogen flexible boiler to help decarbonize the food and beverage industry and eventually eliminate greenhouse gas emissions.
The technology, proposed by Hailin Li, professor in the Department of Mechanical and Aerospace Engineering at the Benjamin M. Statler College of Engineering and Mineral Resources, will supply thermal energy by burning clean fuel rather than traditional fossil fuels. Researchers will also work with Morgantown businesses to achieve those objectives.
The project is funded by a $3 million grant from the U.S. Department of Energy and is one of 40 such projects focused on the Biden administration’s goal of achieving net-zero emissions by 2050.
“The food industry is facing the challenge of how to diminish and eventually eliminate CO2 emissions,” Li said. “If industry leaders really want to achieve that goal by 2050, they have to either burn carbon free clean fuel or consume clean electricity.”
Traditionally, the food and beverage industry has consumed electricity and heat from fossil fuels — including natural gas — which releases greenhouse gases such as carbon dioxide and methane. In response, Li’s team has developed a flexible fuel furnace that can burn pure hydrogen, a cleaner alternative, to produce hot water and steam for product processing.
However, hydrogen isn’t widely available yet, so the furnace can also run on natural gas or its mixture with hydrogen at any ratio. Li said this flexibility will help bridge the industry’s transition from fossil fuels to hydrogen as it becomes more common and economically affordable.
“The goal is to power a flexible operation with energy utilization efficiency up to 98% and nitrogen oxides emissions less than three parts per million,” Li said. “So when we burn the hydrogen in the food industry, we are going to have zero carbon emissions when hydrogen is produced by consuming green energy.”
In addition, the WVU research team has added to the furnace a component they call the “economizer.”
“The economizer is a device that can recover the waste heat from the exhaust gas,” Li said. “And that will make the system way more efficient.”
For close collaboration with the local food industry, the team has partnered with Morgantown-based Mountaintop Beverage, an aseptic beverage manufacturing facility that extends the shelf life of dairy products and dairy alternatives using a thermal processing technology. Beverages are heated to a high temperature and undergo rapid heating and cooling, which sterilizes the product and extends the shelf life up to a year. The facility packages and preps products for shipments to schools and retailers.
“We want to help our local industry by developing the technology to mitigate their challenges,” Li said.
Mountaintop Beverage will provide WVU with access to their facility for sampling furnace operation data. They’ll also perform quality analyses and provide industry input about the hydrogen boiler technology as it’s developed and tested.
Kristen Matak, professor of animal and nutritional sciences at the Davis College of Agriculture, Natural Resources and Design, is assisting Li on the project. As a food scientist focusing on value-added foods, food safety and quality control, she’s interested in the safety and sensory consequences of alternative processing methods on milk.
“Whenever there are changes in food processing systems, we must ensure the impacts these changes make on the final product will continue to meet relevant regulatory requirements and good manufacturing practices,” she said. “My role in this project is to verify the safety and quality of the final product using microbial testing and sensory analysis.”
Matak will work closely with Li to optimize the sterilization process and minimize the energy consumption while maintaining and improving food quality.
The products coming off Mountaintop’s lines are shelf stable, sterile and don’t require refrigeration, so processing has to be efficient.
“All those temperatures and flow rates are very important to achieve that, or you’ll have a lot of products wasted,” Matak said.
WVU will similarly be partnering with Morgantown’s Neighborhood Kombuchery. Researchers will also examine the beverage production process there and identify approaches to reduce energy consumption and greenhouse gas emissions.
According to Xingbo Liu, associate dean for research at the Statler College, “This is a great example of multi-disciplinary and multi-institutional collaboration. The team includes faculty in both Statler and Davis colleges at WVU, the Oak Ridge National Laboratory, GTI Energy and Convergent Science Inc., as well as their industrial partners. WVU recently committed to collaboration with Oak Ridge in the decarbonization areas and this is the first joint project.”
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