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Future Fuel

Researchers combine efforts and explore options in developing alternative fuels

by Sam Fahmy (BS ’97)

When K.C. Das first started exploring ways to convert wood chips into engine fuel five years ago, people thought his work was interesting—but not particularly urgent.

“Five years ago, nobody really cared because crude oil was cheap,” says Das, associate professor of engineering and director of UGA’s biorefining and carbon cycling program. “Now it’s a big deal, and everybody is calling and asking about what’s going on.”

And there is a lot going on at UGA. From wood chips to watermelons, switchgrass to sweet potatoes, researchers throughout the state are exploring opportunities to create new fuels.

Just a few months ago, the University was awarded one of the largest grants in its history—nearly $20 million by the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE)-—to search for efficient ways to turn the tough, fibrous parts of plants into ethanol, an effort that has the potential to increase dramatically the amount of biofuel the nation produces. Das and a team of UGA researchers also recently have developed an entirely new biofuel derived from wood chips.

“There’s a widespread perception, including among legislators and the Governor’s Office of Economic Development, that bioenergy constitutes a great opportunity for Georgia,” says David Lee, vice president for research at UGA. “We have the ability to be a leader in this area, and I think it’s entirely consistent with our role as a land grant institution that we do so.”

From farm to fuel
The idea of turning plants into fuel isn’t new. Henry Ford designed the Model T to run on either gasoline or ethanol—the intoxicating ingredient in beer, wine and liquor—and Rudolf Diesel, the inventor of the engine that bears his name, used peanut oil to power his engine. Ample supplies of crude oil, however, put the brakes on the early use of plant-based fuels.

With the basic science of creating biofuels understood, the task of UGA researchers is to make the process more efficient and, ultimately, cost competitive with petroleum. Waste products from agriculture, the poultry industry, forestry and even from restaurants and bakeries have the potential to fuel vehicles, power plants and the state’s economy.

“Agriculture is the state’s largest industry, but this is a very difficult time because of higher fuel and fertilizer costs,” says Scott Angle, dean of the College of Agricultural and Environmental Sciences. “If we can somehow take our waste products, or maybe even an intentionally grown crop, and turn that into useable energy, that could be the difference between keeping our farmers in business versus an uncertain future.”

With that in mind, scientists at the Tifton campus are working to breed varieties of peanuts that produce large amounts of oil. Others are turning sweet potatoes into fuels. Angle explains that sweet potatoes grow well in Georgia, but our hard clay soil leaves them misshapen and unappealing to consumers. The ugly sweet potatoes work beautifully as a source of ethanol, so scientists are exploring how to grow them efficiently for fuel production.

“What we’re learning now is how to grow them to cram as much energy per acre as possible,” Angle says.

Revolutionizing ethanol
Most of the ethanol Americans use today is derived from corn kernels, which has driven the price of livestock feed up and cut into the bottom line of the poultry industry. Prices of grains such as soy and wheat are rising, too, as farmers devote more acres to corn and fewer to other crops.

Turning corn kernels into ethanol is a relatively simple process (moonshiners have been doing it for ages), but the tough, fibrous parts of plants are much more difficult to break down.

That’s where Alan Darvill, who has spent the past 20 years studying the intricate structure of plant cell walls, comes in. Darvill, co-founder and director of the University’s Complex Carbohydrate Research Center, is leading a team of UGA scientists who are collaborating with Oak Ridge National Laboratory in Tennessee and several other institutions to find efficient ways to break down plants to make what’s called cellulosic ethanol.

Rather than using corn kernels or other edible plants, the scientists hope to turn agricultural waste such as husks and stems into ethanol. Switchgrass, which doesn’t require much water or fertilizer to grow, is another candidate, as are fast-growing poplar trees.

Their task isn’t easy: Plants have evolved their tough cell walls to resist disease, insects and climate extremes. The research team at UGA is made up of 10 labs, each applying the insights they’ve gained from years of basic research into how plants are put together and broken down at the cellular level.

“The exciting thing for me is having all these teams of people from around campus coming together to address one problem and to do it so well and so interactively,” Darvill says. “It’s fun.”

The grant is funded by the DOE for nearly $20 million over five years. At the end of those five years, Darvill expects to have information that sets the stage for commercial applications that increase the nation’s production of ethanol.

Beyond ethanol
Ethanol isn’t the only biofuel UGA researchers are working with. They’re creating biodiesel from oils found in chicken fat, seeds and even algae.

They’re also pioneering a concept known as a biorefinery. Das explains that just as an oil refinery takes a raw product like crude oil and converts it into gasoline, plastics, asphalt and 50 or so other products, a biorefinery takes wood chips, restaurant grease and other wastes and converts them into biodiesel and non-fuel products. One of the products is char, which can be used as soil fertilizer. Putting carbon back into the soil as char offsets some of the carbon dioxide pumped into the atmosphere by the fossil fuels.

“You have a valuable product and at the same time you are getting a net reduction of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere,” Das says.

The biorefinery concept is so exciting that Ryan Adolphson, who directs UGA’s biomass processing facilities, last year found himself describing the process at a roundtable with President George W. Bush.

“I’m not so sure if they’d believe me in the coffee shop in Crawford [Texas] if I told them what he just told me,” the president said, drawing laughter from those gathered. “But it’s possible.”

Of course, a biofuel may be technologically possible to produce, but not economically feasible. John McKissick, the director of the UGA Center for Agribusiness and Economic Development, is an expert in putting a dollar value on the costs and benefits of biofuel production.

“We’ve shown in our research early on that the feedstocks that make the most sense were not the things that we grow exclusively for biofuels production, but from byproducts from other operations like fat from the poultry industry and leftover scraps of timber after harvesting,” he says.

Dale Greene, professor in the Warnell School of Forestry and Natural Resources, says the most valuable uses of harvested wood are traditional products such as lumber and paper, but the small trees and wastes that are left behind are a promising source of energy. Greene has found that having a wood chipper on site to process tree limbs, tree tops and other wastes can generate more than 10 tons of fuel per acre that can be cleanly burned in electrical power plants or refined to produce biofuels.

“Using wood to help meet our energy needs is something that’s renewable and sustainable, particularly the way forestry is practiced in the United States,” Greene says. “We plant six trees for every tree that we harvest.”

Coordinated effort
UGA has more than 80 scientists, engineers and economists who are working on basic and applied biofuels research, and they aim to share their knowledge with each other and with the government and private sector like never before.

Joy Doran Peterson is a microbiology professor who is leading the University’s new biofuels task force. Her research focuses on understanding natural processes that break down plants—like the process certain insects use to digest leaves—and applying that knowledge to biofuel production. As head of the task force, she aims to increase collaboration among the researchers on campus and to make it easier for the government and private sector to connect with the University’s experts. The goal of that kind of partnership, she says, is to see the University’s expertise applied to the real world as quickly as possible.

“I have two small children, and most of us in the group have a family of some sort,” Peterson says. “That really motivates me and gives me a vested interest in making this happen now.”

Signs of the University’s involvement in the biofuels revolution are already evident in small towns such as Gordon, where Macon-based Alterra Bioenergy operates a biodiesel plant that opened last year. The company recently broke ground on a second plant in Plains, and together the two plants will ultimately produce up to 150 million gallons per year.

UGA scientists have shared their expertise with Alterra in what company CEO Wayne Johnson calls a win-win for the entire state. The plant primarily uses Georgia-grown soybeans as a source of biomass, and Georgians manufacture and distribute the fuel. Because biodiesel burns cleaner than petroleum diesel, it also benefits the environment.

“Without the research and leadership at the University, what we did would not have been possible,” Johnson says.

Bioenergy research at UGA:

—Sam Fahmy is the science writer for the UGA News Service.

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Click on image to enlarge

Engineering professor K.C. Das uses UGA’s pilot-scale biorefinery, located just a few miles from the main campus, to test new biofuels made from raw materials as diverse as wood chips and algae. Photo by Paul Efland

Alan Darvill and his team study plant cells on a molecular level. The knowledge they gain will help them develop technologies that break down plants to create biofuels more efficiently. Photo by Paul Efland

Scraps of wood left behind after trees are harvested are a vast source of raw material that can be used to create biofuels, says forestry professor Dale Greene. Photo by Andrew Davis Tucker

Microbiology professor Joy Doran Peterson says that natural processes that insects use to break down leaves may offer clues about how humans can break down plants and create tomorrow’s biofuels. Photo by Andrew Davis Tucker

Ryan Adolphson, who directs UGA’s biomass processing facilities, shows a handful of wood chips that—thanks to research at UGA —can be turned into an entirely new type of biofuel. Photo by Terry Allen