Clemson University Feature Stories

Genomist Alex Feltus analyzes 400 varieties of sorghum to identify the ones most easily converted to fuel.

Clemson scientists are hot on the trail of greener, better biofuels

Peter Kent
Clemson University Restoration Institute

When it comes to technology and science, many of us are like diners in a gourmet restaurant. We enjoy what’s on our plates but are nearly clueless about the cooking the chefs do in the kitchen.

One of the essential ingredients for technology is oil – and it is running out. We need to find substitutes. Otherwise the dishes on the technology menu are going to cost more and be far fewer than we need.

At Clemson the search for oil substitutes is, well, energetic. Researchers are cooking up a storm. Let’s look in the kitchen.

Peach power and other Clemson-grown fuels

What do rotten peaches smell like? Money.

Biosystems engineer Caye Drapcho is working on converting tons of culled peaches into hydrogen gas,
a biofuel for powering a post-petroleum world.

“South Carolina produces about 200 million pounds of peaches each year, but 10 percent of that crop, about 20 million pounds, is wasted,” says Drapcho. “So, by using bacterial cultures, we can convert that waste resource into energy and deliver added value to the growers.”

The nation is going to need a number of alternative energy sources to move past our dependence on oil.

South Carolina uses nearly 2.5 times more energy than it produces, according to U.S. Energy Information Administration 2008-09 data. While the state does not have oil, natural gas or coal resources, Clemson researchers are working on “growing” other fuels.

Biofuels are renewable energy, many of which are liquids produced from plants and animal fats. The two most well-known biofuels are ethanol and biodiesel.

Ethanol is a clear alcohol used primarily as an additive to gasoline. Biodiesel is manufactured from vegetable oils, animal fats or recycled restaurant grease. Blends of 20 percent biodiesel with 80 percent petroleum diesel (B20) are used in many diesel engines. Biodiesel can
also be used in pure form (B100) but may require engine
modifications.

Agronomist Jim Frederick (center) in a switchgrass field with entomologist Francis Reay-Jones (left) and technician T.J. Savereno at the Pee Dee Research and Education Center.Clemson agronomist Jim Frederick is outstanding in his field. Acres of switchgrass grow at the Pee Dee Research and Education Center in Florence where Frederick studies the native, perennial, drought-tolerant plant that produces a high yield and is inexpensive to manage.

“Switchgrass is proving to be a well-adapted crop to the dry soils of South Carolina and one for which there appears to be a rapidly growing green-energy market,” says Frederick.

Pee Dee researchers have teamed with a Charleston company to supply switchgrass to European power plants as a substitute for coal to generate electricity. The company expects to initially ship more than 100,000 tons of switchgrass a year beginning in 2012. The estimated value of the sale is more than $10 million a year to S.C. farmers.

In addition, the Pee Dee scientists are studying other crops as potential biofuels, including Miscanthus perennial grass, corn stalks and trees.

Sorghum is another crop that has more uses than just making the dusky, sweet syrup.

Genomicist Alex Feltus (pictured left) is analyzing 400 varieties of sorghum — also a grass — to identify the ones most easily converted into fuels. His research includes sorghum plant breeding and helping bioenergy producers improve the sugar-to-fuel conversion process.

Fast-growing poplar trees also hold potential as a fuel-stock but require costly pretreatment prior to processing into ethanol. A sticky material in the cell walls, called lignin, impedes processing, but Clemson geneticist Haiying Liang is working to breed poplars with less lignin so they can be processed more easily.

Right tools, catalysts and know-how

Every year, four million tons of green energy go unused in the Upstate. Clemson Extension forestry researchers are part of the Western Piedmont Woody Biomass Marketing Committee helping 11 Upstate counties find ways to use woody biomass to generate steam, heat and electricity. This would turn waste materials from timber harvests and sawmills into renewable energy.

Biosystems engineer Terry Walker is leading research on biofuels processing using a state-of-the-art mobile processing unit. “The processing plant not only gives us a valuable research tool for working with plants, microbes and waste oils but also can demonstrate biofuels production for local producers, bioenergy industrial partners and the public,” says Walker.

If you get a vague whiff of French fries or fried chicken from the diesel truck ahead of you, it may be from biodiesel. Oils used to cook many fast-food menu items can be recycled to
diesel fuel, but the production process has drawbacks.

Chemical engineer Jim Goodwin Jr. leads a team to find a more efficient catalyst to improve
production and decrease costs.

The process of converting vegetable oils or animal fats to diesel fuel is not new, says Goodwin. “Biodiesel fuel has been produced and tested for years as an alternative to petroleum-based diesel fuel. We are looking for a better catalyst for the process.”

A catalyst speeds up a chemical reaction that would occur naturally, but at a much slower rate.

The biodiesel process now primarily uses
a liquid catalyst — sodium hydroxide or lye — that can be corrosive to
equipment and forms soap as a byproduct, requiring more expensive separation. Goodwin’s research team is focused on developing solid catalysts.

”Solid catalysts do not need to be removed because they do not mix with the
 biodiesel product,” says Goodwin, adding that materials being researched are
not corrosive, thus reducing wear and tear on production equipment.

Fill’er up with green

In labs across South Carolina, scientists are teaming up to find ways to create a new fuel to replace gasoline in cars and light trucks.

Some components boggle the imagination: living microbes that, when stimulated with electricity, turn carbon dioxide into an alcohol-based fuel called butanol. Clemson chemist Stephen Creager and microbiologist Mike Henson are part of a statewide research team working on this project.

Ethanol is currently being used as such a fuel. However, the scientists have higher hopes for butanol, which they say could meet the needs of current passenger and other light vehicles.

“Our research focuses on the bench scale and will provide insight into how to produce it at the commercial level,” says Creager, chemistry department chairman.

In June, Clemson signed a Memorandum of Understanding to conduct biofuel research with the University of Queensland in Australia. The collaboration will develop strategies to support energy independence, economic development, fuel production and agricultural revenues in South Carolina and Queensland.

Another interdisciplinary project, funded by the U.S. Department of Energy, created the S.C. BioEthanol Collaborative. The research team brings together scientists from the Savannah River National Laboratory with Clemson biosystems engineer Terry Walker, microbiologist Mike Henson and bioengineer Sarah Harcum to investigate methods to convert switchgrass, sorghum, loblolly pine and other biomass to ethanol.

“We’re on the right track,” says John Kelly, Clemson vice president for economic development. “To move forward we must bring research from the laboratory to the market.

“Technologies tend to rise in performance and fall in cost when they are commercialized. Clemson targets both research into new energy technologies and deployment in the real world. It’s the interplay between scientists and entrepreneurs that drives innovation, creates new jobs and builds our economy.”

That’s a recipe for success.


For more on biofuels research at Clemson, go to clemson.edu/public, click on “Search PSA” and enter “biofuel” in search box.


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