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Professor Murray Thomson (MIE) and his team are developing bio-oil from sawdust and waste wood (Photo courtesy Roberta Baker).

Whether we’re transporting goods halfway across the planet, or making steel in large-scale factories, limiting our carbon emissions is an immense challenge.

But Professor Murray Thomson (MIE) and his team at U of T Engineering are up to the task. Their research explores new types of biofuel, different combustion methods and advanced sensors that are all aimed at reducing our impact on the environment.

Professor Thomson, Director of the Combustion Research Laboratory and the NSERC CREATE program in Clean Combustion Engines, recently spoke with U of T’s Sustainability Office about how his research is creating a cleaner tomorrow.

Who are you, and what do on campus?

My work involves researching bio-fuels and combustion, as well as developing sensors to improve energy efficiency in large industrial processes. There are a lot of new and forthcoming regulations in the area of pollution, including new standards for gasoline engines, diesel engines and aircraft. My challenge is to lower particulate emissions to meet these new standards.

In terms of bio-fuel, we are currently working with a number of different types, including biodiesel and something called bio-oil, which is made from sawdust and waste wood. Canadian companies are very prominent in the bio-oil sector, and we are collaborating with them on improving the utility of these fuels.

What does your position at NSERC entail?

I am a member of the research management committee at the BioFuelNet NSERC National Center of Excellence, where research activities are divided into four different themes covering the entire life of bio-fuel: feedstock, conversion, utilization and Social, Economic and Environmental Sustainability. I am a co-leader in the “utilization” section, which looks at the practical, pragmatic uses of bio-fuels.

As well I am the director of the NSERC CREATE program in Clean Combustion Engines, a 6-year training and internship program for graduate students that focuses on bio-fuels and other alternative fuels.

How do you define sustainability?

Sustainability is a process or a product that could go on indefinitely. Bio-fuels are a good example. From a carbon point of view, one could say they are sustainable, because for every kilogram of CO2 absorbed by a plant, a kilogram is then burnt as fuel and released. Theoretically, at least, there is no net CO2 produced.

What have been your greatest environmental successes?

From a scientific point of view, we did some of the earliest and most cited works on the combustion of butanol, which is a proposed alternative to ethanol that looks like it will be commercialized in the next few years.

With regards to commercialization and patenting, we’ve been successful in our development and commercialization of optical sensors for industrial process control. As far as having a big impact goes, the industrial furnaces in which we install these sensors are enormous consumers of energy. They are a good place to look for improvements to energy efficiency, because a small reduction of even a few percentage points can make a huge difference.

They also emit a great deal of CO2, so making the system more efficient represents not only a win for the company, which doesn’t have to spend as much on energy, but also for the environment. I’ve been working in this area for 15 years, and our lab here at the University of Toronto now has a number of sensors in various stages of commercialization.

Do you have any favorite environmental hobbies or activities outside of work?

I do a lot of canoe camping in the summer near Lake Temagami, which is a lovely spot up north. The trip I want to get working on is to the Spanish River. The railroad literally comes right up to the lake there. You can take your canoe on the train, get off, and start paddling right from the edge of the tracks. It’s an old tradition, dating back over a hundred years.

Is there anyone you’re impressed with for having made a practical difference on the Canadian bio-fuel scene?

Someone I’m impressed with who’s been able to make a difference is Esteban Chornet, a former professor at the University of Sherbrook. He started a company called Enerkem , which is now developing a process in Edmonton that makes ethanol from garbage.

Also, there is David Boocock, a professor in the Chemical Engineering department at the University of Toronto who started a company called Biox , which takes waste animal fat and turns it into bio-diesel.

I give them credit, because I know from personal experience how difficult it is to commercialize research ideas.

Professor Murray Thomson and the Combustion Research Laboratory recently celebrated a 20-year anniversary partnership with Tenova Goodfellow Inc. The two groups continue to work closely together on the development of new optical sensors used in more efficient steel-making. Read more.

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