Cheaper fuel: a pipe dream?

Angela Gray


1oney makes the world go ’round.

But those who attribute an era of petroleum addiction as the culprit of major global conflicts might argue oil does.

Throughout the University, experts, researchers, professors and students are addressing the idea of creating a sustainable oil economy.

“The issue isn’t whether oil is running out, but rather how much people are willing to pay for it,” said Chris Paola, a professor of geology and geophysics and director of the University’s National Center for Earth-surface Dynamics.

Paola said he has been working with five oil companies for several years helping to locate oil by finding sand and sediment deposits.

He said by the time an oil company loses interest in a typical oilfield, only about one-third of the oil in the ground is recovered because that’s all that is economically feasible.

In the search for oil, fluctuating gas prices and foreign dependency are relevant issues, he said.

“The largest issue is that most of the world’s oil is in places with politically unstable governments,” Paola said.

The oil problem will require a mixed solution, he said.

“It is a serious mistake not to have put more energy and resources into alternative power sources,” he said.

Paola said his main point is that if oil were running out, scarcity would beget very high prices, which would cause a turn to other energy sources.

“People think gas pumps are drying up,” he said. “There is no chance we’ll run out of oil; and if we did, by burning it, we would have done so much damage to the earth’s atmosphere it would be unthinkable.”

Paola said there is oil exploration happening all over the world. There is an enormous amount of recoverable oil in the Middle East, especially in Iraq, he said. West Africa, Russia and Vietnam are becoming “hot prospects.”

“Oil is not running out,” he said. “Cheap oil is running out.”

With oil costing $69 a barrel, there hasn’t been a slowing of consumption.

It is impossible to get around fluctuating gas prices, he said.

“Most cheap and easy-to-find oil has been found,” he said.

When dealing with high gas prices and oil availability, he said, the only practical response would be looking into renewable energy.

Biofuels center
For researchers at the University such as Shri Ramaswamy, professor and head of the department of biobased products and a working group member of the University’s Initiative for Renewable Energy and the Environment, the National Biofuels Center is an essential step in increasing the University’s contribution to the state’s renewable energy industry.

The National Center for Biofuels Research is two years in the making.

Dick Hemmingsen, director of the initiative, said the center would combine components of broad biomass technologies, agriculture, biological sciences and the Medical School to make it the top biofuels center in the nation.

The center would be built next to the Cargill building on the St. Paul campus, costing about $45 million, Hemmingsen said. It is hoped funding

for the initiative would come from the federal and state governments and private industry.

He said a completion date for the project is “literally the $64 million question.”

“Obviously we’d like (the completion of the center) to be the sooner the better,” he said.

“Right now, the center is one of the University’s top federal (funding) priorities,” he said.

Ramaswamy said the center will give the University facilities and infrastructure needed to be successful in securing competitive grants and also help attract top-quality faculty members and students to Minnesota.

Further investment in Minnesota’s renewable energy industry by way of the center will lead to healthier and more sustainable environments, better utilization of the state’s substantial renewable resource supply and economic development and employment in rural areas, he said.

The state
With an evident increase in worldwide petroleum consumption, and oil costing about $60 a barrel, the investment community is starting to put money into alternative fuels.

Ramaswamy said that for 10 years now, all gasoline sold in Minnesota has consisted of 10 percent ethanol – a biofuel often derived from corn.

Gov. Tim Pawlenty’s mandate to increase this to 20 percent by 2013 is an additional boost to Minnesota’s stature as the national leaders in biofuels, Ramaswamy said.

Last fall at the Initiative for Renewable Energy and the Environment symposium on campus, Pawlenty reaffirmed his support for establishing the National Center for Biofuels Research at the University.

The University and the state join a growing national movement toward renewable energy driven by dwindling fossil fuel reserves, increasing petroleum consumption caused especially by a growing middle class in China and India, global warming and Middle East politics, Ramaswamy said. Advances in biotechnology make the transition feasible, and potential economic benefits add to the appeal.

While corn-based ethanol might be the most talked about energy alternative, it will not be the sole ingredient in Minnesota’s biofuel industry, Ramaswamy said.

A combination of corn, agricultural residues, energy crops such as switch grass, wood chips, forestry residues and even yard waste are expected to contribute to alternative fuels.

“There is not one solution; there are a variety of solutions,” Ramaswamy said. “Using ethanol as the alternative liquid fuel is a near-future solution; and in possibly 50 years, maybe sooner, using hydrogen from renewable fuels as the transportation fuel will be an option.

“The direct influence of the (National Center for Biofuels Research) will be to develop innovative ways to produce alternative fuels from a variety of bio-resources,” Ramaswamy said.

Minnesota is particularly well-positioned to benefit because of the state’s agricultural and forestry base and the presence of companies such as Cargill, NatureWorks and 3M, said Ramaswamy. The strength of University programs in agriculture, forestry, industrial biotechnology, biocatalysis, microbial biochemistry, chemical engineering and materials science, ecology and other key fields also help.

The potential economic benefits of renewable energy are enormous because it means the state can produce its own energy rather than paying billions of dollars a year to import fossil fuels, he said.

Because of increases in energy prices, a variety of biodegradable research is in progress.

Roger Ruan, professor of biosystems and agricultural engineering and co-director of the University’s Center for BioRefining, has developed a technique for making liquid biocrude oil by cooking biomass with water and a chemical catalyst to dissolve it.

His research group is also developing microwave reactors that turn solid biomass and wastes into burnable gas, liquid bio-crude and solid residue.

The minerals in the solid residue can be used as fertilizer, he said, or sold as activated carbon to receive extra income. It is a self-sufficient process, he said.

“I feel ethanol from biomass is very expensive and requires capitals not practical for the near future,” Ruan said. “There are major companies working on it, but they still have a long way to go.”

“The simplicity of the process would make it possible for a grower to convert biomass on farm or at a local processor into bio-crude,” he said. “The bio-crude could then be transported to another site for further processing and refining.”

Biodiesel, ethanol and bio-crude oil are different cleaner fuels with different compositions and uses.

“Currently, ethanol or bioethanol are mainly made from fermentation of cornstarch and blended in the gasoline fuel; biodiesel mainly made from vegetable oils and blended in diesel fuel,” Ruan said.

Biodiesel is a clean-burning fuel made from vegetable oils.

If biofuel could be made from cornstalks or the waste wood that gets discarded from a pulp mill, it would not require additional farmland usage and would turn what is essentially garbage into something valuable, he said.

Lanny Schmidt, regents’ professor of chemical engineering and material science, along with a team of researchers, invented a reactor that extracts hydrogen from ethanol.

The reactor does not burn ethanol like ordinary combustion, which produces water and carbon dioxide. Instead of water, it makes hydrogen gas.

Having the ability to create hydrogen gas from renewable sources limits pollutants created in the process and has the potential to decrease dependency on fossil fuels and achieve a hydrogen economy, Schmidt said.

Paul Dauenhauer, a graduate student and one of Schmidt’s researchers, said the group is working on methods of turning biomass-derived compounds into hydrogen gas for use as a fuel.

“One of our best successes has been reforming ethanol to hydrogen,” he said.

This process, called catalytic reforming, uses a metal catalyst that looks similar to a sponge over which researchers flow vaporized air, ethanol and water, he said.

Dauenhauer said this could benefit machines like cars that could store energy as ethanol, which then could be reformed to hydrogen for a fuel cell.

“We are not there yet, but in the future we would like to be able to reform things like wood chips, grass clippings and other biomass sources directly to hydrogen.”

Dauenhauer said the biomass supply has great potential not only for the environment, but also for the state’s pocketbook.

“With the help of this research, the struggling forest products industry in Minnesota and in the nation could become a true forest biorefinery,” he said.

University mechanical engineering researchers also are working with vehicle engines to help create a more sustainable energy economy.

Mechanical engineering professor David Kittelson has been working on engines for 30 years.

He started researching biodiesel 10 years ago. A lot of the work focuses on the fundamental characteristics of biodiesel engines.

“It is becoming essential to create conventional fuels and renewable fuels that do not release any pollution,” he said.

Another approach to biodiesel production is gasification of biomass.

Kittelson is working on ways to produce high-grade fuels from “black liquor,” a residual material from paper pulping.

He said his researchers are conducting field tests with vehicles operating on biodiesel and servicing the Biodiesel Helpline with a full-time worker informing people of biodiesel.

“Most of my work is focused on making engines approach zero emissions,” he said.

Kittelson is working on projects related to hydrogen mixed with different fuels. He predicts that ethanol will be a primary fuel source.

“We’re not envisioning people filling their cars with ethanol,” he said.

He said there would be a device (similar to professor Lanny Schmidt’s reactor) that reforms ethanol and converts it to hydrogen-rich gases. A small fraction of the ethanol is reformed and injected through a normal fuel injector, he said.

“We are trying to understand how to best use biodiesel in various sorts of engines and to help people to improve the properties of it,” Kittelson said.

He said many renewable fuels have compatibility issues with engines. For example, when people run increased amounts of ethanol with vehicles not designed for it, fuel lines might dissolve.

Better tests need to be developed to promote the biodiesel oxidation work with people in plant genetics and agricultural engineering, he said. Also, researchers must improve oil plants so they make biodiesel fuels with better properties and a more stable end product that doesn’t deteriorate when stored.

The University has a fleet of vehicles running on E20 and conventional gasoline in field testing. The drivers of those vehicles keep detailed records of any problems they encounter, Kittelson said.

Darrick Zarling, a scientist in the department of mechanical engineering, said he is in the beginning stages of a project that might lead to the expanded use of biodiesel in towboats on the Mississippi River.

“It’s practical to use biodiesel as a fuel on the river because it is more environmentally friendly; for example, if there is a spill, it is biodegradable and nontoxic,” he said. “It is also produced locally.”

Luke Franklin, mechanical engineering graduate student, is working with Zarling in labs running normal diesel engines, adding gaseous hydrogen and comparing the performance and emissions.

“Most commonly, diesel engines can’t operate fully on hydrogen,” he said. “We are looking at novel ways to utilize hydrogen in engines.”

If the researchers can find a way to reduce emissions and run diesel engines clean with a hydrogen-biodiesel blend, it might reduce greenhouse gas emissions and petroleum dependency, Zarling said.

Energy-efficient vehicles
Alfred Marcus, professor of strategic management and organization, who is researching energy-efficient vehicles and their economic effects, said in an e-mail while he was out of the country that the promise of hybrid technology is that it can offer greater fuel efficiency without sacrificing size or performance.

Hybrids also can offer enhanced performance with improvement in fuel economy. In both cases, the benefits come at a price, Marcus said.

The electrical power components add anywhere from $3,000 to more than $5,000 to the cost of the vehicle.

“If current gasoline prices of over $2 a gallon persist, the payback of buying a high-efficiency hybrid takes more than five years,” he wrote.

Should gas prices revert to lower levels, the payback time is considerably longer, he wrote.

In Canada, Europe and much of Asia, where gasoline prices are double or triple those in the United States, the payback is much sooner. “People let down their guard because they assume that the danger at hand has abated,” he wrote. “If there is a belief that energy-saving technology is readily available, drivers are less inclined to conserve.”

With greater efficiency, he wrote, drivers might be less concerned about costs, less worried about environmental damage and less threatened by energy diminution.

“Comfort level grows and they buy bigger cars and drive more,” Marcus wrote. “Net energy consumption therefore goes up.”

The main idea is that energy-saving technology like hybrids – no matter how good they are – are not a full solution to energy problems.

Hybrid vehicles, he wrote, are a great technology, but without supportive government policies, people driving less and in smaller vehicles the energy problem won’t go away.

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