Research Corner: Dr. Manuel Garcia-Pérez

Our world’s dependency on fossil fuels is one of the biggest challenges facing society today. The planet’s fossil fuel reserves are declining and the side effects of extracting and using these fuels are damaging our environment. Thus, a top priority amongst researchers is finding a cleaner, sustainable alternative to fossil fuels. At Washington State University, one researcher is taking a unique approach to this global challenge.

“One of man’s earliest achievements was controlling fire for cooking and heating,” said Manuel Garcia-Pérez, associate professor in the College of Agricultural, Human, and Natural Resource Sciences’ Department of Biological Systems Engineering.

Each time Dr. Garcia-Pérez sees a camp fire, he is thinking about the thousands of reactions that happen in different sections of the flame and how to control them in order to address some of the most pressing environmental issues facing our society. The use of these thermochemical reactions to produce environmentally friendly fuels, chemicals and carbons is a major focus of his research program.

The first step in this work is figuring out exactly what are the most promising fuel sources. Often the biomass used is dictated by its availability or by a pressing social issue like the need to reduce forest fire intensity or reduce the amount of organic waste going to landfills. Once the biomass source is identified, Dr. Garcia-Pérez studies the relationship between specific biomass properties, such as molecular weight and cellular structures, reaction conditions and the nature of the main products obtained.

Dr. Garcia-Pérez’s research on producing advanced fuels sheds light on the nature of aerosols released during forest fires. Learning more about the nature of these reactions and how to control them is helping his team and future scientists everywhere visualize new ways to use the reactions to develop new products and better understand the environmental fate and health impact of forest wildfire products.

“We know how to produce fuels using lipids and free sugars. Our major challenge today is to find a way to produce fuels economically using lignocellulosic materials,” said Garcia-Pérez.

He is hopeful that the new thermochemical theories and technologies that his team is developing will lead to more rational design of economically viable pathways to convert waste biomass, such as forest residues and sugar cane bagasse into alternative transportation fuels and chemicals. The contributions his team is making to understand the chemistry of pyrolysis oils will result in bio-oil refineries with the capacity to produce fuels and chemicals from each of the fractions of these oils. This work to develop engineered bio-chars should enhance soil fertility.

Because of the presence of Boeing in the state, WSU identified the production of alternative jet fuels as a priority area for growth. The Northwest Advanced Renewables Alliance (NARA) and the Aviation Sustainability Center (ASCENT) are examples of successful institutional initiatives that have made huge strides toward creating and implementing alternative jet fuels in the North American market. Garcia-Perez is using his thermochemical expertise to contribute to these initiatives.

“WSU has one of the largest biomass programs in the nation,” said Garcia-Pérez. “We work to be the leaders in aviation fuel. We are not only looking for ways to produce cleaner and more environmentally-friendly transportation fuels, but we’re also looking at how we can reduce production cost.”

Garcia-Pérez’s interest in the environment formed its roots in Cuba. He was raised in a highly polluted, industrial town on the eastern side of the island. He studied chemical engineering at the University of Oriente, and later attended the Université Laval in Québec, Canada, where he received both his Master of Science and doctoral degrees in chemical engineering. After post-doctoral assignments in the U.S. and Australia, he came to WSU to build a program in biomass thermochemical conversion.

Dr. Garcia-Pérez is an associate editor of Biomass & Bioenergy and is a member of the joint Department of Energy and United States Department of Agriculture Biomass Research Development Initiative Technical Advisory Committee. He has been published in close to 130 peer reviewed publications. He also serves as the new director of the Bioproducts Science and Engineering Laboratory (BSEL) on the WSU Tri-Cities campus.

Dr. Garcia-Pérez has not forgotten his Caribbean roots. He is deeply concerned with deforestation issues in Haiti and the impact charcoal smuggling is having on the forests in the Dominican Republic. This year, Dr. Garcia-Pérez volunteered for two weeks with the United States Agency for International Development Farmer-to-Farmer program in the Dominican Republic to develop sustainable technologies to produce charcoal using forest and agriculture wastes. His goal is to use his knowledge in thermochemical conversion to help Haiti and the Dominican Republic create a sustainable biomass industry for the Island.

Here in Washington, Dr. Garcia-Pérez also wants to establish a new biomass industry that will contribute to reducing forest wildfire intensity, produce fuels and chemicals from forest thinning, and enhance soil fertility in the Columbia Plateau. The same charcoal used for cooking in Haiti is needed here in Washington state to enhance the fertility of our sandy soils and store carbon.

Complex environmental problems facing humanity today have to be solved through collaborative actions of experts from many fields and places. Dr. Garcia-Pérez credits WSU for providing the framework to be able to work on interdisciplinary and multidisciplinary projects with experts from a variety of disciplines.

“While I am focused on biomass thermochemical conversion, my work also depends on collaboration with other researchers in forestry, chemistry, sociology, soil sciences, biology, chemical, electrical and civil engineers. These interdisciplinary partnerships are needed to find solutions to complex contemporary problems such as forest fires, soil fertility, global warming, and the use of chemical conversion for environmentally friendly fuel additives,” said Garcia-Pérez. “The ability to create multidisciplinary doctoral committees gives us an extraordinary opportunity to attack these complex problems.”

Dr. Garcia-Pérez will continue studying the reactions that happen in a camp fire with the hope that the new reactions he will identify, the theories, technologies and new products he will help create will one day contribute to solving some of our most pressing environmental problems.