MINNEAPOLIS (AP) – 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
replace corn ethanol as the alternative fuel of the future.
The University of Minnesota finds itself in a unique place because it’s
able to investigate so many different aspects.
Institute on the Environment spokesman Todd Reubold said biofuels research
falls into three general steps.
One is you have to grow something,” Reubold said. “The next is
you have to convert whatever you grow into a fuel. And then the third step
probably better test that fuel before you put it into cars.”
Reubold said biofuels research has “exploded” within the last 10
years – and hundreds of university faculty, researchers and students are involved
with those three steps.
Our strength is the fact that we can do every step of the process to making and
testing biofuels,” Reubold said. “We’re kind of looking at
the whole picture.”
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
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 there’s 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.
One reason we’re excited about it is there is high-oil corn on the market
from other sources but it’s about 7 percent oil,” Phillips said. “The
first generation hybrids we’ve produced have 12 percent oil.”
As the next generation of biofuels is developed, university researchers aren’t
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 – leftover
plant materials like corn stalks and prairie grass that wouldn’t typically
be processed for anything.
Corn ethanol is a good first step in the right direction,” he said. “There
are 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.”
Other university researchers are converting materials like algae and swine
manure into biofuels.
When considering the potential pros and cons of a biofuel, economic issues
are just as important as environmental ones,” said Doug Tiffany, assistant
professor of applied economics.
Tiffany does full-cost accounting for numerous biofuels projects across campus,
an examination of all the costs associated with a project – so researchers
examine the costs starting with the land it’s grown on and ending with
the emissions from an engine.
We’re going to use some land, we’re going to apply some fertilizer,
we’re going to have some equipment using fuel, then we’ll take this
material and process it.” Tiffany said. “There will certainly be
some expenditure of energy in those situations.”
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
progress on reducing greenhouse gases, he said.
The economics of corn ethanol have “improved a great deal” 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.
One thing that has to be considered is, will we have sufficient volume of this
biofuel to integrate it in to our overall fuel system?” he said.
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
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.
Getting fuel in an engine is one trick,” Strykowski said. “And just
because you get it in there doesn’t mean you’re going to necessarily
break the bonds and get all the thermal energy you want.”
A report by the Institute on the Environment’s resident fellow Jason
Hill and a team of scientists and economists at the university found burning
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.
Essentially we went back and said, ‘Is this assumption that’s out
there that it’s better from a health perspective really true,’” Hill
said. “We found that for corn ethanol, it’s not really true.”
What the researchers found was that the total environmental and health costs
associated with corn ethanol are more than double the costs associated with
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
You’re comparing a system that’s up and running and has real world
data to a system that’s still founded a lot in theory,” said Nathan
Fields, director of biotechnology and economic analysis at the National Corn
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.
When we look at renewable fuels from multiple environmental and health perspectives,” Hill
said, “we see there is a definite advantage in moving to second generation
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