Dr Kalpit Shah, an early career researcher within the Priority Research Centre for Frontier Energy Technologies and Utilisation at NIER, is using his research

Energy audit

Greenhous gases and concentrations of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere hit a new high in 2014. 

This recent warning comes from the United Nations, which claims that climate change could move the world into "unchartered territory".

Dr Kalpit Shah, an early career researcher within the Priority Research Centre for Frontier Energy Technologies and Utilisation at NIER, is using his research to provide solutions to industry to address energy efficiency improvement and emission reduction.

Viable and value-added

Passionate and inventive, Dr Kalpit Shah is seeking to develop economic, safe and sustainable ways of using raw materials and energy.

Kalpit Shah

Dr Kalpit Shah is – quite literally – changing the world. From mining and the agricultural sector to petrochemicals, power and steelmaking, the young scientist is making a difference, giving back to society through the design and delivery of technically sound, environmentally friendly solutions for industry.

"My expertise lies in the area of thermochemical conversions of solid, liquid and gaseous fuels, such as coal and biomass," he explains.

"It covers things like plants, which in many instances are used not for food or feed but as a resource for making energy."

Supported by a "wide range" of advanced experimental and modelling tools, Kalpit's research straddles the engineering, physical and life sciences fields. Both fundamental and applied, it also dovetails into mathematics and social justice.

"I am deeply pained by the fact that climate change is already having a detrimental impact on economies, communities and ecologies," he states.

"With global warming comes an increased risk of flooding, drought and intense summer heat."

"The lower middleclass populations of developing countries are affected by these conditions the most."

"I feel I have a key role to play in alleviating their suffering."

Improvement via innovation

Before joining the academic front in 2008, Kalpit worked in the chemical industry in India. Aiming to boost its energy efficiency rating during the six-year stint, the esteemed investigator took on a number of privileged positions.

"I am the youngest professional in the state to have obtained a license as an energy auditor," he attests.

"I was a senior project executive and research manager too."

"These early efforts were recognised by the Gujarat Electricity Board, which presented me with an award in 2005."

Relocating to Western Australia a few years later, Kalpit undertook a PhD in Chemical Engineering. A joint effort between Curtin University and the Netherland's prestigious Energy Research Centre - ECN, the three-year probe sought to make sense of the co-firing mechanisms of coal and biomass during different conversion processes.

"We looked into pyrolysis, the thermochemical decomposition of organic compounds at high temperatures in the absence of oxygen, as well as gasification, a partial oxidation practice and combustion, a chemical reaction involving the rapid combination of fuel and oxygen whereby compounds are broken down into carbon monoxide, carbon dioxide, hydrogen and methane," he clarifies.

Resorting to analytical and modelling techniques to explain the "difficult-to-predict" physico-chemical transformations that occur during these processes in few milliseconds, Kalpit helped ECN in developing a 'Co-Firing Advisory Tool' (CAT) for organisations wanting to implement biomass feedstock in coal-operated facilities.

"CAT provides a lot of technical advice," he shares.

"It's considered to be a valuable resource."

"Australia is the largest producer and user of coal so it has great potential to incorporate biomass as a co-firing constituent to reduce carbon dioxide emissions."

"Biomass is essentially carbon dioxide neutral."

Sensational and translational

Kalpit continued at Curtin University after receiving his doctorate at the beginning of 2011, employed as a research associate to collaborate on a handful of industry-led assignments. This "relatively short tenure" ended in the middle of that same year, however the senior lecturer found a more permanent home at the University of Newcastle's Institute for Energy and Resources.

"During my time here I've secured more than $2 million in funding for individual projects, as well as more than $6 million in funding for the team development of a self-patented Ventilation Air Methane (VAM) abatement system," he avows.

"This technology uses methane emitted in very dilute concentrations from coal mines and converts it to carbon dioxide and useable energy."

"With a global warming potential 25 times greater than that of the former, methane and therefore VAM mitigation, is widely seen as the biggest challenge for coal-producing countries."

Determined to help reduce these and other pollutant emissions, Kalpit is concurrently exploring a fundamental engineering principle called 'Chemical Looping.'

"It suggests some of the reactions occurring in industrial processes that emit carbon dioxide are reversible," he illuminates.

"It also suggests that if you're able to break a global chemical reaction into two elementary steps, you can reduce exergy losses and improve efficiency."

Applying the principle in several novel ways, such as with the development of Stone Dust Looping VAM Abatement Technology (SDL), Kalpit is steadily shoring up Australia's position as a world leader in innovative, near zero emission mining. Using limestone as a raw material and carrying out the process at "very low" methane concentrations, he's similarly backing the self-sustainability of associated industries.

"SDL works on the related principle of catalytic oxidation followed by carbon dioxide capture," he declares.

"It can operate without auxiliary fuel and at temperatures 40% lower than conventional processes of VAM mitigation as well."

"It's really quite impressive."

Bold steps

A master at multitasking, Kalpit is simultaneously seeking to create new technology platforms for biomass utilisation. He has recently procured a $1.1 million funding grant from VTara Energy Group, ensuring research efforts will continue well into 2016.

"The project is aimed at solving a missing link in the gasification of biomass," he reveals.

"Using agricultural waste and byproducts to generate heat and electricity will benefit developing nations and guarantee Australia's support of global economic advancement."

A "firm believer" in the potential of multipurpose organic compounds, Kalpit is also committed to evolving the science of this nuanced utilisation.

"Our country, being the largest source of coal and biomass, should focus on becoming self-reliant where meeting long-term oil and chemical demands are concerned," he concedes.

"If not used for power generation, both could – and perhaps should – be relied upon in other industrial sectors."

"For example, I'm currently using green solvents, such as ionic liquids, to process coal and biomass into liquids."

"It's a completely new, energy-efficient approach."

At the same time, Kalpit is looking to invent some environmentally friendly waste utilisation technologies.

"I'm trying to produce electricity from urinal waste generated at central locations, such as airports and shopping malls," he confirms.

"I'm developing a process to recover ultrafine coal waste from tailing ponds too."

Waste not, want not

Acknowledging that climate change, sustainable engineering and waste utilisation will be "ongoing issues" both here and abroad, Kalpit is looking to inspire confidence in current, related research endeavours at the University.

"I would like to strengthen our ties with different industries," he divulges.

"They can expect thorough solutions to their scientific and technical problems when they come to our doorstep."

November 2015