The Engineer's Impact - Naomi Klinghoffer 

Your inside look at faculty’s research and its effect on society

In this new Q&A series, we’ll feature Western Engineering faculty members to gain a succinct overview of their research, understand its impact on society, and discover intriguing little-known facts.

Meet Chemical and Biochemical Engineering Assistant Professor Naomi Klinghoffer

Can you describe your research?

profile photoMy research group develops processes for converting waste, such as agricultural residues, non-recycled plastics, or food waste into useful products. We do this by using high-temperature thermochemical processes such as gasification or pyrolysis. These are relatively inexpensive processes, and we have the ability to fine-tune the reaction conditions to tailor the products that are made. For example, we can make renewable fuels such as hydrogen, bio-oil, methanol, or synthetic natural gas. We can also produce synthesis gas, which can be used to make many different chemicals that are widely used in the chemical industry. Another product that we make is biochar, which resembles charcoal, but is derived from biomass or waste, rather than fossil fuels. Biochar can be used as a fertilizer, as a catalyst, or to remove pollutants from wastewater, soil, or air. We also investigate ways to convert CO2 into useful products to offset CO2 emissions to the atmosphere.  

How does your research impact society in everyday life?

Each of us produces waste through our day-to-day activities, while at the same time we have high demands for energy and materials. The way we handle waste now, which primarily involves landfilling, occupies valuable land and produces greenhouse gas emissions. We also see waste such as plastics accumulating in the ocean, lakes, and waterways. At the same time, we are extracting resources at high rates to meet society’s need for materials. We can address both problems by finding better ways to use resources. Conventional recycling, known as mechanical recycling, can only be applied to certain types of materials. In my work, we focus on chemical recycling, which can accept any type of waste, break it down into chemical building blocks, and use those building blocks to make materials or low-carbon fuels which are useful in our day-to-day activities. Creating this type of circular economy benefits society and the environment.

What’s an interesting, little-known fact related to your research?

Biochar is a material that resembles charcoal but is made from biomass, which is renewable. It can be used to sequester carbon and reduce greenhouse gas emissions. While carbon sequestration is often understood to be complicated or very expensive, biochar is a simple and inexpensive solution to storing carbon and reducing emissions.