Published on 06/19/08

UGA takes biofuels exhibit to Washington

By Sam Fahmy
University of Georgia

The University of Georgia gave policymakers in Washington an up-close look at the future of biofuels by demonstrating how raw materials as diverse as algae, chicken fat and wood chips can be turned into fuel.

UGA is among 13 institutions nationwide to win “The Grand Challenge,” a competition sponsored by the U.S. Department of Agriculture and the 25x’25 Alliance, a coalition of leaders from the agricultural, forestry and renewable energy communities. The challenge recognizes universities that have taken leadership roles in renewable energy research, teaching and outreach.

As winners, UGA scientists were among the 80 exhibitors at the USDA’s Bioenergy Awareness Days June 19-22 in Washington. They demonstrated ways to harness the state’s rich natural resources to create sustainable fuels that benefit the economy as well as the environment.

“The Grand Challenge helps focus the nation on the future of renewable energy,” said Craig Kvien, professor in the UGA College of Agricultural and Environmental Sciences and one of several authors of UGA’s winning entry. “Collectively, there are going to be some good ideas presented that can be used to help develop bioenergy policy and to improve research and outreach programs at our institutions. The fact that UGA was recognized says a lot about all of the people across campus working on renewable energy research and outreach.”

The UGA exhibits demonstrated how:

* Algae can be grown in wastewater and then harvested and processed to create a biofuel.

* Waste chicken fat from poultry processing can be refined to oil that can be used in industrial boilers or further refined to biodiesel.

* Wood chips and pellets made from timber scraps can be processed into a biofuel.

* An autonomous, ethanol-powered tractor can save farmers time and fuel by working around the clock with minimal supervision.

K.C. Das, associate professor of engineering and director of UGA’s biorefining and carbon cycling program, pointed out that Georgia currently imports all of its petroleum-based fuel but is rich in plant materials and animal waste – collectively known as biomass. It can be converted into biofuels.

In addition to algae, chicken fat and wood chips, UGA engineers are creating biofuels from industrial and municipal wastes, restaurant grease and agricultural products that can’t be sold to supermarkets, such as bruised watermelons and peaches or even outdated cola and juice.

UGA scientists are also searching for ways to break down efficiently the tough, fibrous parts of plants so that agricultural wastes such as husks and stems, rather than corn kernels and other edible plants, can be used to create ethanol.

Other candidates for ethanol production include fast-growing poplar trees, napier grass and switchgrass, all of which don’t require much water or fertilizer to grow.

UGA has more than 80 scientists, engineers and economists working on basic and applied biofuels research. They’re collaborating through the university’s Biofuels, Biopower and Biomaterials Initiative, also known as B3I.

“The B3I allows us to synergize the resources at the university for a common goal,” said Joy Doran Peterson, professor of microbiology and B3I director. “And the recent surge in gas prices and ongoing concerns about global warming really underscore the urgency of our work.”

The UGA researchers said they’re pursing a collaborative, multi-disciplinary approach because there’s no single approach – no silver bullet – that will solve the nation’s energy needs.

“The strength of UGA’s approach is that we’re exploring several solutions so that communities can derive energy from the raw materials that are best suited to their circumstances,” Das said. “Just imagine the benefits of diversifying our energy sources.”

Sam Fahmy is director of public relations for the University of Georgia's Office of the Senior Vice-president for Academic Affairs and Provost.