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New NSF Industry/University Cooperative Research Center Led by WPI Aims to Dramatically Reduce Energy and Water Use by Improving Industrial Drying

Funded by the National Science Foundation, the new center will attack one of the most energy-intensive processes in manufacturing; its research could help save 200 trillion BTUs of energy in United States each year

October 4, 2016

A new multi-university research center led by Worcester Polytechnic Institute (WPI) aims to dramatically reduce energy and water usage while also increasing the economic competitiveness of a broad spectrum of industries by bringing innovations to one of the most energy-intensive aspects of manufacturing: drying. The Center for Advanced Research in Drying (CARD), funded by the National Science Foundation (NSF) through its Industry/University Cooperative Research Centers program (I/UCRC), brings together researchers at WPI and the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.

CARD is the second NSF I/UCRC established at WPI. The Center for Resource Recovery and Recycling (CR3), part of the university's Metal Processing Institute, was launched in 2010 with the mission of developing new technologies for maximizing the recovery and recycling of metals used in manufactured products and structures.

Jamal Yagoobi

Drying is important in industries that handle moist, porous materials. Examples include making food snacks, cereal, and pasta; producing paper; and manufacturing powders and other forms of dry bulk chemicals. About 2 percent of the 100 quadrillion BTUs (or quads) of energy used each year in the United States is wasted by industrial drying processes, said CARD's inaugural director Jamal Yagoobi, George I. Alden Professor and head of WPI's Department of Mechanical Engineering. "The goal of CARD is to improve the efficiency of those processes by 10 percent, which would save 0.2 quads of energy each year," Yagoobi said. "Since steam is the prime media used in industrial heating and drying, by making drying more efficient, the center also aims to help reduce annual water usage in the United States by about 10 billion kilograms, or the equivalent of the water in 4,000 Olympic-sized swimming pools.

"By achieving transformative breakthroughs in drying technologies, we can have a profound impact on U.S. manufacturing capabilities," Yagoobi added. "In the short term, major innovations in this field, when commercialized, will positively affect production costs, process efficiency, energy sustainability, and product quality. In the long run, the magnitude of these changes could very well foster a new era of U.S. manufacturing competitiveness and job creation."

Yagoobi said CARD will conduct industry-sponsored research on drying technologies used, for example, to make food and agricultural products, paper, building materials and other forest products, bulk chemicals, textiles, and pharmaceuticals. Drying accounts for a significant portion of the energy used in each of these industries, he noted. In the paper industry, for example, 30 percent of all energy consumed goes into drying. In addition to improving the efficiency of drying processes and reducing waste, he said a central goal of the center is helping manufacturers produce better products by giving industries more control over the drying processes. The quality of many products is affected by how quickly or evenly drying takes place, he said, or by the methods used to extract moisture.

As an NSF I/UCRC, CARD derives the bulk of its funding from its corporate members, each of which pays an annual membership fee of $50,000. The center currently has 12 members and is seeking to expand to 30 members within five years. CARD members suggest topics for research projects, which are then voted on by the entire membership. Current active projects include the development of innovative impinging jets that will enable delicate items to be dried more efficiently without incurring damage; the design of new sensors to measure moisture levels and other material properties to allow for better control of drying; and studies of how product properties are changed during drying processes.

The only major research center at an American university focused on industrial drying, CARD has also been named a partner in one of the nine U.S. National Network for Manufacturing Innovation Institutes launched by the Obama Administration. CARD is a member of the Clean Energy Smart Manufacturing Innovation Institute, established in the summer of 2016 in partnership with the U.S. Department of Energy. The institute brings together a consortium of nearly 200 academic, industry, and nonprofit partners to spur advances in smart sensors and digital process controls, innovations that can radically improve the efficiency of U.S. advanced manufacturing.

The center is also part of Rapid Advancement in Process Intensification Deployment (RAPID), a coalition organized by the American Institute of Chemical Engineers that is competing to be named the network's next institute. RAPID would focus on the application of process intensification—a fundamental area of knowledge in chemical engineering—to manufacturing processes to lower costs, improve energy- and resource-efficiency, and increase overall productivity. Yagoobi notes that membership in these national initiatives will bring additional significant federal funding to CARD.

​Yagoobi, whose research on transport phenomena in porous moist materials led to his establishing a drying research center at Texas A&M University when he was a faculty member there, said he first envisioned CARD four years ago. He began discussing the idea with Irfan Ahmad, executive director of the Center for Nanoscale Science and Technology, and Hao Feng, professor of food science and human nutrition, both at the University of Illinois; Feng is now the Illinois site director for CARD. The center obtained an I/UCRC planning grant from the NSF in 2013, which enabled the researchers to begin reaching out to corporate members. CARD recently received a Phase I grant from the NSF, which will bring annual awards of $300,000 to WPI and the University of Illinois. At the end of five years, the center can apply for continuing funding through a Phase II grant.

"I want to acknowledge the valuable contribution of my WPI and Illinois colleagues toward creating this new center," Yagoobi said. "Without their valuable contributions, establishing CARD would not have been possible."

Research projects undertaken by CARD are carried out by faculty members and graduate students at WPI and the University of Illinois. Yagoobi said he expects that projects carried out at Illinois will focus on issues in food and agriculture as well as sensor development, while WPI researchers will focus on the engineering aspects of drying. While drying will be the primary focus, Yagoobi said the center will also conduct research on heating, cooling, freezing, and frying—all processes that involve heat and mass transfer.

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