A life in pipes

Sunday, December 23, 2007 | 5:16 p.m. CST; updated 11:54 a.m. CDT, Monday, July 21, 2008
Dr. Henry Liu displays a new brick he has created by compressing fly ash from coal-fired power plants. The manufacturing process requires only 20 percent of the energy it would take to create a normal brick because the bricks do not have to be baked at a high temperature. The bricks were featured recently in TIME magazine as one of the best inventions of the year.

COLUMBIA — Henry Liu admits he was lucky — while finishing his thesis, he was offered a job at MU, turning down a more lucrative job with an aircraft company for the job security of academia.

It paid off. He has only worked at one job. He’s spent the majority of his life in Columbia, going, as he said, from being carded for beer to being offered a senior citizen’s discount.

Liu was born in China, moved to Taiwan during junior high school and graduated from National Taiwan University. He received a Fulbright scholarship to attend Colorado State University, where he got his master’s degree and doctorate in engineering.

Most of his career has been spent studying compressing and transporting solids by pipeline. He was the director of the Capsule Pipeline Research Center. Started in 1991, it lasted until 2000, when Liu retired.

At the center, Liu helped develop a plan for a utility company to transport coal by pipeline at a time when freight railroad rates were skyrocketing. The center learned how to compress coal into cylinders and found they could transport the coal by floating them in a bit of water and using a pipe slightly larger than the coal cylinders.

He has been invited to different countries to talk about pipeline technology, and he said companies in China especially seem interested in investing in the infrastructure necessary to make his pipeline plans a reality.

Shankha Banerji has worked with Liu in the College of Engineering since Liu arrived at MU in 1965 and is a consultant for Liu at the Freight Pipeline Co. He worked with Liu throughout his time at the Capsule Pipeline Research Center and said he’s seen Liu work on a variety of problems, not all engineering.

Banerji said Liu has an engineer’s mind when approaching any problem and “doesn’t let ideas die.”

“For example, for the Pipeline Center, he had a full-sized demonstration on campus. He had 6- to 8-inch pipes and set up a full-sized test loop, not just a lab scale demonstration,” Banerji said.

When Liu was developing the patent for his brick made from fly ash, Liu decided not to pay the high lawyer fees and to learn how to fill out the paperwork himself. (He said that after reading books and going to seminars, he knows enough about filling out the paperwork that he probably did a better job than a lawyer.) He learned a lot about eminent domain and legal issues when planning how to develop the coal pipeline. He said he even had to learn to use the Internet and check his e-mail after he started his business, something his secretary did for him while he was the Pipeline Center director.

Another project Liu is working on is developing biomass logs. By taking paper or grass, Liu has compressed them to make the materials transportable and more efficient to burn. One of his employees even compressed pine cones into a cylinder.

“I’m not going to try to solve nuclear engineering problems because I don’t know much about it,” Liu said. “I’m sticking to my field, to the things I know a lot. Within that field there are many unsolved problems, and I’m trying to solve those problems related to energy use and related to the environment.”

Liu said he’s planning on retiring in a few years from the Freight Pipeline Co. and handing it over, although he doesn’t think he’ll ever completely remove himself from research. He said he’d like to have more time for things like swimming and water skiing at Lake of the Ozarks. Even in post-retirement retirement, Liu said he’ll be involved in the company in some aspect or another.

“I get frustration from playing golf. I feel satisfied when I do research. To me, my research is my passion, my hobby,” he said.

Liu said he plans to build a green-brick retirement house as soon as he can. Until then, he’ll work on seeing some of his projects to fruition.

“After retiring from MU, I would not have started on a company and worked on this if it was not fun,” he said. “It’s like a puzzle. Is it frustration to work on a puzzle? No, when you come to the end especially, you get satisfaction when you see the puzzle is solved.”

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