Researchers work to fill biofuel gap

The University’s Department of Bioproducts and Biosystems Engineering is working to develop sustainable, domestic biomass solutions.

Ashley Bray

Every day, Americans hear about the problems facing our nation — rising national debt, a warming climate and depleting natural resources. The University of Minnesota is tackling head-on one such problem: the consumption of nonrenewable fuels that pollute the air.

The University’s Department of Bioproducts and Biosystems Engineering — a division of the College of Food, Agricultural and Natural Resource Sciences and an affiliate of the newly renamed College of Science and Engineering — is working to establish itself as a prominent leader in developing sustainable, domestic biomass solutions.

The United States is a petroleum-based economy, but as petroleum becomes more expensive and global supplies dwindle, the government has started transitioning the country to a bio-based economy, BBE professor and department head Shri Ramaswamy said.

It’s a transition that BBE has dubbed the “bio-based revolution.”

“There has been a fairly long-term trend toward moving away from fossil energy and towards bio-based, renewable energy for environmental, economic and national security reasons,” Christina Connelly, biofuels manager for the Minnesota Department of Agriculture, said.

Minnesota is a leader in the production of bioproducts, Ramaswamy said, although there is often confusion surrounding what exactly bioproducts are: materials, chemicals and energy derived from renewable bio-based resources, including food, feed and fiber.

Furthermore, Minnesota is one of the first states to institute a biofuel mandate in gasoline and biodiesel fuel, he said.

Legislation also requires producers to blend 10 percent ethanol into nearly all gasoline and 5 percent into nearly all biodiesel, Connelly said.

Breaking away from corn-based ethanol may become a real option in the future, and BBE is looking to use nonfood biological resources like agricultural residues, forest residues and other biological resources to produce fuel instead of corn.

“We don’t want to compete with edible crops,” Ramaswamy said.

A variety of inedible corn that’s used solely for fuel production is “a very good first step in terms of developing the biofuels industry,” but other options should be considered in the future, Ramaswamy said.

Another project outside of the traditional fiber-based biofuels is working with algae, such as pond scum. BBE is working to develop strains of algae that can be mass produced, and many people on campus are studying algae for its possible use in biofuel production, Brett Barney, an associate professor with BBE, said.

In the same way safflower, soybean, canola or other oils typically used in cooking can be converted to biodiesel, algae produces oils that can be used for the same purpose, Barney said.

“In theory, if you can grow and maintain large cultures of algae, the productivity per square area is dramatically higher than what you can get out of a land plant,” he said.

The ultimate goal, he said, is to produce a fuel to be used in place of gasoline.

There’s a common misconception that by using land to grow biofuel resources, food prices will increase dramatically, Ramaswamy said. However, “the government is very insightful in saying we are only going to use so much.”

That impact on food prices has been greatly exaggerated, according to the MDA.

Much debate has surrounded the amount of land that’s available for producing energy crops for biofuels, Connelly said.

While biofuel production competes to a certain degree with food production, algae alleviates that concern because it is grown on barren land not typically used for agriculture, Barney said.

Fuel production “is changing so dramatically, so quickly, that things people thought would be impossible 10 years ago are happening now,” he said. “It’s sort of endless. The capability of what you can actually do is dramatic.”