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Student Spotlight

Philip Nuss

Alumni Profile: Philip A. Nuss

Degree: Earth and Environmental Science


Dissertation Title: Comparative Systems Analysis of Thermochemical and Biochemical Conversion of Organic Waste towards Industrial Feedstocks

Advisors: Dr. Kevin Gardner and Dr. Stefan Bringezu

Description of Research

Shifting the resource base for chemical and energy production from fossil feed-stocks to renewable raw materials is seen by many as one of the key strategies towards sustainable development. Depletion of fossil-fuels and escalating environmental concerns create a need for novel sustainable routes for the production of commodity and specialty products that have similar or advanced properties as compared to current fossil-fuel derived substances. The utilization of biomass in biorefineries for the production of chemicals, materials and energy is proposed as an alternative to the petroleum-based industry.

Current research focuses mainly on the utilization of lignocellulosic biomass, originating from agriculture and forestry, as second generation feed-stocks for biofuel and chemicals production. However, in this regards also biomass as well as other low-value waste fractions, originating from municipal solid waste (MSW) streams, could serve as alternative feedstock. Among the advantages of using MSW as a primary feedstock are that it provides a steady source of supply (in contrast to agricultural biomass which is seasonal) and that, unlike other purpose-grown crops, its production does not consume additional land and water resources. Furthermore, MSW is the only feedstock with an already existing collection and processing infrastructure in place, and it has the advantage of being separately funded in most instances. Finally, MSW feed-stocks can be collected at a zero or negative cost where tipping fees competitive with landfill alternatives can be levied.

This project aims at looking at biochemical (fermentation) and thermochemical (gasification) processes capable of converting the biodegradable fraction of municipal solid waste (BMSW) as well as additional gasifiable waste materials (e.g. plastics and wood) into platform chemicals that can be used to further produce synthetic materials (fuel production can occur later in the life-cycle). Looking at the conversion routes towards synthetic materials will be of particular interests as these are predestined to allow a closer cycle of materials and reduce dependence on either fossil or biobased raw materials. The work attempts to analyze the efficiency of these routes with regard to their carbon and energy balance and the system-wide environmental impacts as well as technological and economic implications, using Life Cycle Assessment (LCA). Results will be compared to data available for fossil-fuel based commodity chemicals and it is hoped that results of this study will add to the current debate on sustainable biomass utilization and to establish future supply chains for green and sustainable chemical products.

Previous Awards and Activities

Studied chemistry in Germany and as an ERASMUS student in Scotland and received a diploma in chemistry from the University of Kiel in early 2007. Philip undertook his thesis research at the Leibniz Institute of Marine Sciences in Kiel in the field of marine biogeochemistry focusing on stable nitrogen isotopes. Before moving to New Hampshire, he worked for 5 months as an intern with the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) in Bangkok, Thailand, and spent another year studying and working in China and South Korea.