Vol. 19, No. 31

May 18, 2000

DOE grant

Research project aims to increase paper mill efficiency

The U.S. Department of Energy has awarded a team led by University of Delaware professor $900,000 for research into a critical sector of the pulp and paper industry - refining the process by which wood fiber is transformed into the basic material for papermaking.

The result, according to Francis J. Doyle III, chemical engineering, should be less expensive paper, produced with less energy and having less impact on the environment.

"Our goal is to automate one of the most difficult units in a paper mill, the digester at the front end of the process," Doyle said. A year ago, he founded a consortium at UD that brings corporations and academe together to collaborate on similar process-control and monitoring problems.

The DOE grant, which also includes Prasad Dhurjati, chemical engineering, will be used to fund graduate and postdoctoral projects, in cooperation with papermaking rivals such as the Weyerhaeuser Co. and Westvaco Corp., to refine the mechanisms of pulping.

"The digester is a chemical reactor that takes wood chips and breaks them down into the precursor of fiber for paper," Doyle explained.

"The challenge with these units is operating them during a transition (which) creates a disturbance. It could be that the plant decides to change the production rate or a mill changes the type of wood it is using as feedstock, because one uses different types of wood to make different types of paper products," he said.

Doyle said papermakers today normally use "a fairly low level of automation," but with new computer-controlled systems the process will be monitored and faults diagnosed quickly.

To achieve that goal, Doyle said, the research team will develop algorithms, mathematical models to eventually create a "virtual" paper mill digester on a computer. Working with the papermakers and vendors such as instrument makers ABB and Honeywell Inc., Doyle's team hopes to provide
generic solutions that can be used industry wide.

"The Department of Energy is interested because paper mills are incredibly energy-intensive... so they're prime candidates to bring in better automation that is more energy efficient," Doyle said.

Minimizing effluent, the unused material discharged from a paper mill, also will result from intensified process-control to help protect the environment, he said.

Such partnerships with industry are the foundation for UD's Process Control and Monitoring Consortium, started by Doyle. It includes a dozen companies, including the DuPont Co., Roche Diagnostics and IETek, Inc.

Formally, the consortium describes its purpose as "to address research needs in the critical technology areas of computer integrated process operations (through) an interdisciplinary enterprise, primarily centered in the College of Engineering, with associated faculty in chemistry and
mathematics."

Put more simply, according to Doyle, "We look at a broad range of issues in process automation.

"Our vision has come to be called the 'triangle paradigm,' with the University, industry and the vendor on three corners," Doyle said.

Working together, researchers are devising theoretical and computational tools to model processes for making products ranging from pharmaceuticals to petrochemicals.

"At one end of the spectrum we have a diabetes project," Doyle said. "We're using a fundamental model to try to understand how the body manages glucose and insulin?to make tools to design algorithms for drug delivery."

Funding for the consortium comes from memberships fees, which can be $20,000 or more, enabling an industrial partner or equipment vendor to fund University research in their field, monitor projects, receive reports, attend progress meetings and even recruit students as they graduate.

The 37-year-old Doyle might well be described as "a local boy who made good." He grew up in the Newark area, and chemical engineering is a family affair.

His father, a chemical engineer for Motiva Enterprises (the former Texaco oil refinery) in Delaware City, inspired him. "I learned from him what chemical engineers do, and I enjoyed math and chemistry at school," Doyle said. His brother also is a chemical engineer.

After graduating from Princeton University in 1985, Doyle traveled to Cambridge University in England to get his master's degree a year later, and earned his Ph.D. in chemical engineering from California Institute of Technology in 1991.

From CalTech, Doyle went to work for the DuPont Co. in Wilmington; was a visiting scientist for Weyerhaeuser Co. in Seattle; and taught engineering at Purdue University until 1997. Then, Doyle said, he "came home" to join the UD faculty. He and his wife have three young children and live in Newark.

With its varied disciplines, the process control consortium helps to emphasize the university's 21st-century approach to chemical engineering education.

"It's is a very good field to get into right now," Doyle said. "We're not just creating Ph.D.s for traditional engineering positions. Our students adopt an integrative approach to problem solving through their systems engineering training. We bring multiple tools and disciplines together to solve a problem. And the process systems engineering field is a very active area," he said.

For federal agencies such as DOE, and for companies involved in the consortium, tapping UD's multidisciplined brainpower is certain to pay off in better industrial processes, according to Doyle.

"It's a lot of bang for the buck," he said.

-Phil Milford