Biofuels at the U: From crops to your car

As politicians and environmentalists clamor for the development of new, alternative fuels, scientists and researchers across the country are working to develop and analyze new biofuels. Corn ethanol, the well-established biofuel, is a $6 billion industry for Minnesota, with 19 ethanol plants operating across the state. But corn ethanol is being challenged by new research questioning its actual benefits, and there are a host of other biofuels being researched and developed that could replace corn ethanol as the alternative fuel of the future. The University of Minnesota finds itself in a unique place because itâÄôs able to investigate so many different aspects. Institute on the Environment spokesman Todd Reubold said biofuels research falls into three general steps. âÄúOne is you have to grow something,âÄù Reubold said. âÄúThe next is you have to convert whatever you grow into a fuel. And then the third step is you probably better test that fuel before you put it into cars.âÄù Reubold said biofuels research has âÄúexplodedâÄù within the last 10 years âÄî and hundreds of University faculty, researchers and students are involved with those three steps. âÄúOur strength is the fact that we can do every step of the process to making and testing biofuels,âÄù Reubold said. âÄúWeâÄôre kind of looking at the whole picture.âÄù

In the ground

One way to improve the efficiency of biofuels is to improve the efficiency of the crops they are made from. Agronomy and plant genetics professor Ron Phillips and a team of researchers are working on breeding a new strain of corn that has six times the oil of regular corn. Phillips received a unique strand of high-oil corn from North Korea and began studying its genetic properties two years ago. Regular corn contains about 3.5 percent oil, but University researchers have identified genes that can increase the oil content to nearly 20 percent. Increased oil content means thereâÄôs more oil that can be extracted and converted into biodiesel. Workers are currently breeding new lines of high-oil corn to identify which strains have the highest oil content. Phillips said the research is promising and the high-oil corn has the potential to impact the commercial biofuels industry in the future. âÄúOne reason weâÄôre excited about it is there is high-oil corn on the market from other sources but itâÄôs about 7 percent oil,âÄù Phillips said. âÄúThe first generation hybrids weâÄôve produced have 12 percent oil.âÄù

Not Just Corn

As the next generation of biofuels is developed, University researchers arenâÄôt just looking to corn as a source of alternative fuels. Shri Ramaswamy, a bioproducts and biosystems engineer, said researchers in his department are investigating candidates from other plant residues âÄî leftover plant materials like corn stalks and prairie grass that wouldnâÄôt typically be processed for anything. âÄúCorn ethanol is a good first step in the right direction,âÄù he said. âÄúThere a lot of production and environmental issues that need to be addressed but the next stages are residues and other plants that already grow in Minnesota.âÄù Other University researchers are converting materials like algae and swine manure into biofuels. âÄúWe are converting all kinds of stuff,âÄù Ramaswamy said.

Examining the total cost

When considering the potential pros and cons of a biofuel, economic issues are just as important as environmental ones, Doug Tiffany , assistant professor of applied economics, said. Tiffany does full-cost accounting for numerous biofuels projects across campus, an examination of all the costs associated with a project âÄî so researchers examine the costs starting with the land itâÄôs grown on and ending with the emissions from an engine. âÄúWeâÄôre going to use some land, weâÄôre going to apply some fertilizer, weâÄôre going to have some equipment using fuel, then weâÄôll take this material and process it,âÄù Tiffany said. âÄúThere will certainly be some expenditure of energy in those situations.âÄù Not until after taking into account all the factors involved in growing, processing and using a fuel can researchers begin to determine whether a biofuel is making progress on reducing greenhouse gases, he said. The economics of corn ethanol have âÄúimproved a great dealâÄù and Tiffany said he sees it as being a viable alternative fuel going forwards. One issue biofuels producers will run into, he said, is being able to produce a sufficient quantity of a particular fuel. âÄúOne thing that has to be considered is, will we have sufficient volume of this biofuel to integrate it in to our overall fuel system?âÄù he said.

In your car

Mechanical engineering researchers are testing a jet engine with different biofuels to see how they burn in the engine. The jet engine typically runs on diesel, mechanical engineering Professor Paul Strykowski said, but researchers have been testing soybean oil and diesel blends. When investigating how biofuels work in engines, Strykowski said researchers look at how well fuels atomize and spray into the engine, as well as how well the fuel burns. âÄúGetting fuel in an engine is one trick,âÄù Strykowski said, âÄúand just because you get it in there doesnâÄôt mean youâÄôre going to necessarily break the bonds and get all the thermal energy you want.âÄù

Costs to human health

A Feb. 2 report by the Institute on the EnvironmentâÄôs resident fellow Jason Hill and a team of scientists and economists at the University found burning corn ethanol is no better than burning traditional gasoline, and is worse than cellulosic ethanol, an ethanol produced from plant residues. Hill, who led the study, said it was previously believed that burning corn ethanol was better for human health than burning gasoline. âÄúEssentially we went back and said, âÄòIs this assumption thatâÄôs out there that itâÄôs better from a health perspective really true,âÄôâÄù Hill said. âÄúWe found that for corn ethanol, itâÄôs not really true.âÄù What the researchers found was that the total environmental and health costs associated with corn ethanol are more than double the costs associated with cellulosic ethanol. Critics of the report warn that cellulosic ethanol is still years away from being commercially viable and point to corn ethanol as an alternative fuel available now. âÄúYouâÄôre comparing a system thatâÄôs up and running and has real world data to a system thatâÄôs still founded a lot in theory,âÄù said Nathan Fields , director of biotechnology and economic analysis at the National Corn Growers Association. Hill said even though cellulosic ethanol, which is considered a second generation biofuel, is a little while off, the report shows that it is worth working toward developing it commercially. âÄúWhen we look at renewable fuels from multiple environmental and health perspectives,âÄù Hill said, âÄúwe see there is a definite advantage in moving to second generation technology.âÄù