About the possibilities of using solid fuel in industry, the continuity and importance of backup plans in research

This spring, you successfully defended your doctoral dissertation. Tell us what topic was your dissertation devoted to?

My name is Diyar Tokmurzin. I studied at the School of Engineering and Digital Sciences with a PhD program in science, engineering and technology. The theme of my dissertation is “Optimization of a circulating fluidized bed gasifiers for Kazakhstan coals”.

Before entering the doctoral program, I studied at the Almaty University of Power Engineering and Telecommunications, specializing in the preparation of fuel and water for power plants and industrial facilities. The theme of my thesis was related to the gasification of coal and integrated gasification combined cycle power plant with steam and gas turbine.

I continued to engage in the subject of energy in industry in my master’s program at the University of Manchester, where my dissertation was devoted to the utilization of low-grade heat to increase the energy efficiency of a thermal power plant. 

In fact, my doctoral work was a logical continuation of my previous research work on the possibilities of using solid fuels in industry and energy.

In particular, my work concerns the production of semi-coke, which is widely used in metallurgy. I proposed to produce it by the method of partial gasification in circulating fluidized bed reactors. In fact during complete gasification, coal is usually completely converted into a gas, and in our case we just partially gasify it in order to rapidly devolatilize coal without external inputs of heat. As a result, the obtained special coke can be used for the production of ferroalloys, in blast furnaces, or in novel installations for metallurgy such as COREX and FINEX. At the same time, we propose to use a fundamentally new method for the production of semi-coke, which is more environmentally friendly.

My topic is quite extensive, so in the future, I plan to continue my research work on its further development and the development of new approaches and technologies for their application directly in industry.

Now, for example, I work in the Eurasian group, and I am essentially dealing with the same issues – gasification of coal, circulating fluidized beds, as well as the production of liquid fuels and chemical raw materials from coal, processing of coal tar, etc.- but more in the applied area, with the aim of introducing novel technologies.

Was it difficult to defend a dissertation online?

Overall, it was quite comfortable for me to defend my dissertation online.  Due to the difficult situation with the coronavirus pandemic, quarantine, and the introduction of a state of emergency, submitting my work online was really the only way to defend a dissertation. It is gratifying that all the defense participants were able to join the meeting without any problems, including participants from the UK. Moreover, anyone who was interested in the subject of my work, including students, were able to freely connect via a link provided by email and the social networks Facebook and LinkedIn. I would like to express special gratitude for the excellent organization of the defense to the PhD Program Manager, Professor Luis Rojas, and the Manager of the School of Engineering and Digital Sciences Makpal Shomenova.

What can you tell about the process of working on a doctoral dissertation?

I began my work on a dissertation in the first cohort of doctoral students at NU, and at the very beginning we didn’t have much – the necessary equipment, facilities, instruments, etc. It must be understood that the university itself was still very young at that time. Together with my supervisors, I participated in the construction of the laboratory, up to the procurement of everything that was necessary for the work. But this is also a certain experience for me, and, like any skills, I am sure that this experience will be useful for me in the future. As a result, we managed to jointly create a new laboratory. I hope that in the future our laboratory will continue its forward movement and will be equipped even better.

I have to mention the support that I received in terms of organizing the process of research and writing my dissertation. I had excellent supervisor who helped me a lot with my dissertation work. Professor Desmond Adair helped me in my modelling work, as well as in the preparation and writing of articles. Professor Boris Golman provided invaluable assistance in the process of writing articles and systematizing the results. Kalkaman Aitbayevich Suleimenov was my co-supervisor, a person directly from industry. Thanks to him, we were able to build the laboratory that I mentioned earlier. Its peculiarity is that pilot installations are placed here, which essentially are pilot plants. These are not just mock-ups; they are really small plants, with experimental reactors, with the help of which I was able to carry out all the experimental part of my work.

In addition, during the training I received and implemented two grants from the Royal Academy of Engineering, published 11 scientific articles in journals indexed by Scopus, on the subject of my thesis and on other research projects.

I have developed very friendly and warm relations with everyone with whom I had the opportunity to study and work at NU, including my supervisors. Kalkaman Aitbayevich helped me with the design and competent submission of my grant applications to attract sponsorship funds. Sometimes results from projects and their financing can be expected for years. My project was successfully funded because it is directly related to industrial production and was more practical than theoretical, representing a certain interest for industry. The first experimental reactor was built with the help of ERG. We were also able to obtain funding for projects from Samruk-Energy, which contributed to the further development of the laboratory. Now the laboratory is called the Nazarbayev University Laboratory and Samruk-Energy joint laboratory for clean coal technologies.

Can you tell us more about these projects?

As I mentioned, these were grants from the Royal Academy of Engineering. In one of these projects, our partners were the University of Manchester and the Atyrau Oil Refinery. We carried out an optimization research of the heat exchanger network used in refinery processes with the aim to reduce the consumption of thermal energy. We focused on two crude oil distillation units.

The second project, which was also funded by the Royal Academy of Engineering, concerned the utilization of municipal solid waste. In Kazakhstan there is a serious problem with waste disposal. Nobody knows what kind of municipal solid waste we have, its composition and what is possible to do with it at the end. As a part of our project, we studied the possibility of using municipal solid waste as non-traditional fuel on power plants. Under a similar project, Nazarbayev University also provided us with funding. First of all, we conducted a morphological study in order to determine the morphological composition of the waste, then we determined its thermal characteristics so that in the future the results of our studies could be applied in practice. For example, an investor who comes to Kazakhstan could use our results to design further techno-economic feasibility studies in order to build municipal solid waste utilization power plants. In the process of doing this work, we published several scientific articles on different ways of using the combustible part of municipal solid waste. So, one of my works concerned the pyrolysis of municipal solid waste, that is, the technology for processing the organic part of raw materials into gaseous, liquid, and solid combustible materials. As a result of the study, we qualitatively and quantitatively determined the mass balance of pyrolysis products such as synthesis gas, tar, and char. Necessary to mention that the solid residue can be used as fuel on conventional coal power plants.

What motivated you to enter the doctoral program and what are your future plans?

During my master’s studies, I received an invitation to work at Nazarbayev University. During my work here I decided to pursue a doctorate. 

Both of my parents and grandparents were engaged in science and have doctoral degrees, so it was a kind of continuity and no small importance for me to continue my studies. Although, I knew about the difficulties of this path, I continued to study my chosen direction and, as a result, defended my dissertation.  I believe that research should have practical application and bring benefit to society, so now I am engaged in introducing innovations into industry including both the results of my research and my work, as well as new technological solutions.

What could you recommend to future doctoral students?

I would tell future doctoral students and those who are just starting to work on a dissertation, that something always can go wrong, and therefore it is necessary to have a plan B, and if necessary – plans C, D, etc.  That is what you should be prepared for.  You should have more than one research plan, preferably several different possible options. Many consider the work on a doctoral dissertation akin to writing a student or master’s work, but it is much more complicated. And often there are so many things that can go wrong. For example, barriers can occur due to complex logistics, the equipment may not arrive on time or it may fail at the last moment, or it may turn out that necessary chemicals are not available, etc. In such cases, your backup plan(s) will always helpful.