Assistant professor delves into the business of bioenergy

A year into a new role as an assistant professor of industrial and manufacturing systems engineering, Guiping Hu enjoys the added opportunities to help students pursue their own studies, not to mention exploring an unexpected realm of interdisciplinary collaboration.

Hu, who was promoted from lecturer in January 2010, says her previous experiences teaching undergraduate courses and managing research projects helped ease the transition to assistant professor. Along with different classes to instruct, Hu appreciates building personal connections with her undergraduate and graduate students. “I like working and learning with the students. They continually impress me with their progress,” she adds.

By training, Hu is an industrial engineer with a focus on operations research, supply chain management, and systems optimization. Working on the “theoretical side” of industrial engineering, she gathers data about the production processes of a business, ranging from transportation efficiency to crop yield fluctuations, and creates a comprehensive strategic and operational planning model that maximizes output and minimizes expense and negative environmental consequences.

Her system analyses are multi-scale studies, ranging from large-scale system optimization, such as where to place factories and what  the best practice for the national energy infrastructure is, to small scale system analyses, concerning which type of equipment or pathway to use, and what the best plant layout should be.

Climate change concerns, high petroleum prices, and government support for renewable energy initiatives, along with Iowa State’s commitment to green initiatives, have encouraged Hu to apply her mathematical and supply chain management research in the field of sustainability practices and bioenergy production systems in particular.

With this focus, she investigates the trade-offs between cost-effectiveness and efficiency and environmental sustainability. Her current projects involve assessing best practices to implement sustainability measures such as using alternatives to fossil fuels, particularly in the growing field of bioenergy, where renewable fuels are derived from biological sources called biomass.

With the help of experts in the multidisciplinary field of bioenergy, such as Robert Brown from the Bioeconomy Institute; David Laird and Matt Liebman from the agronomy department; Raj Raman and Kurt Rosentrater from agricultural and biosystems engineering; and Zhiyou Wen from the food science and human nutrition department, Hu has discovered that determining the most beneficial and sustainable practice means looking beyond what may immediately seem best for the environment.

One way she balances her research is by developing optimization models that take economic evaluations, environmental assessment, and social impact into account.

“Equipment is expensive, and it takes energy to make energy,” Hu says. “New technology is exciting, but it may not be the best option once various perspectives are considered.”

She adds that strategic planning and operation decisions must be robust enough to counteract any inherent risks and uncertainty, such as yields that differ from year to year, changes in market demand and prices, and long-term environmental stability.

Applying industrial engineering to this field has Hu and her students considering the impact producing bioenergy can have on other forms of fuel already in use as well as facility placement for new bioenergy production plants. Hu explains facility location is particularly important because biomass converted to bioenergy is initially bulky and can be expensive to transport, so the distance from source to refinement facility must be reasonable for the practice to be sustainable.

Currently, Hu is working on a two-year local food project, mapping supply and demand for the U.S. Midwestern region. “If we were to supply our food locally, we could minimize the transportation distance of our diet, which means lowering monetary and resource expenditures,” Hu says.

She is also working on a project that reintegrates crop and livestock systems. Historically, livestock and crops were raised together—corn and cows were cultivated on the same farm. It is only in recent decades that these have become separated, and we have yet to see if this separated format is sustainable. “We’re looking at tradeoffs—using crops to feed cattle and taking fertilizer from cattle to use on the crops to create a closed-loop system that is environmentally friendly.”

With more resources at her disposal in the form of collaboration with students and faculty, Hu sees her work in sustainable practices growing. “I plan to continue bioenergy systems analysis research, from individual reactors and single facility research to large scale facilities network and supply chain system design for bioenergy,” Hu says.