Scientists at UW-Superior working to turn northern plants into affordable bio-fuel
SUPERIOR, Wis. – The effort to achieve energy independence has come to the University of Wisconsin Superior, where scientists are seeking ways to turn plants from northern regions into an affordable, high-quality jet fuel.
Fuels derived from plants – so-called bio-fuels – could hold the key to the United States reducing its reliance on foreign oil. At UW-Superior, scientists from the university and Chicago-based American Science and Technology Corp. are using $3.75 million in federal defense funding in a multi-year collaborative effort to develop a sustainable production process for bio-based JP-8 jet fuel that burns cleanly and easily at low temperatures.
The inaugural Bio-Fuel and Energy Independence Symposium to be held Sept. 3 at UW-Superior will highlight the work so far by the UW-Superior and AST scientists as well as bio-fuel work by researchers at other universities and laboratories. The free, all-day event is open to the public and includes Lt. Gov. Barbara Lawton as keynote speaker. More information, a list of presenters, and a registration link are available at www.amsnt.com/BEIS.htm or www.uwsuper.edu.
Currently, most bio-fuel is produced by a multi-step process that makes it comparatively expensive. Also, most bio-fuel has lower energy density and flows sluggishly at low temperatures, which makes it ill-suited for military use.
The research at UW-Superior is aimed at developing manufacturing technology that can produce bio-JP8 fuel from domestic resources. The scientists are analyzing plants from northern Wisconsin and northern Minnesota to determine whether the properties that enable plants to survive the region’s winter temperatures make them suitable for creating bio-fuels that perform well at low temperature.
The AST and UW-Superior scientific team is focusing on three elements of research. First, to develop a chemical catalyst that can convert vegetable oil into a high-energy-density bio-fuel. Second, to create a genetically engineered microbial that can break down the carbohydrate chain of vegetable oil to produce methane gas and a liquid form of bio-fuel. And third, to identify the best high-yield oil seed that can be grown in northern Wisconsin.
Dr. Ali Manesh, president of AST, said his company worked with the U.S. Army Research Lab to determine that developing a process to make bio-JP-8 would help address one of the Army’s most critical problems. He said his company turned to UW-Superior for help because the university has strong programs in biology and chemistry, and its Lake Superior Research Institute has experience in handling large-scale research and development projects.
In 2006, AST and UW-Superior created an initial research and development team comprised of scientists from both organizations. The following year AST provided capital for the UW-Superior to start a research project based on the heat transfer of select bio-chemical compounds.
The research team has identified that a biologically based JP-8 derived from plants indigenous to northern Wisconsin potentially can display many of the same properties as current JP-8 fuel.
The Army Research Lab and the Department of Defense have agreed to grant the team additional funding so it can continue its work. AST also has generated new partnerships in this project with UW-Stevens Point, UW-Madison, and Argonne National Laboratory near Chicago.
Several UW-Superior students also are involved in the project, gaining research experience and using state-of-the -art equipment purchased for the project. “This is a project that students will really enjoy working on since it has direct applications to some major issues our country if facing right now,” said Dr. James Lane, one of the UW-Superior scientists working on the research.
Funding for the bio-fuels research was requested by U.S. Rep. Dave Obey and approved by Congress. The funding is administered through the Lake Superior Research Institute at UW-Superior.
UW-Superior ranks third among UW System campuses in the amount of federal research money received. That funding enables university scientists to conduct research while help students gain experience in applied science.
“Teaching and research are part of what defines being a faculty member, and our professors’ research is often an extension of their teaching,” said Vice Chancellor and Provost Dr. Christopher Markwood. “At UW-Superior, involving our students in research enhances their learning experience and enhances the mentoring relationship our faculty members have with students. We live in a knowledge-based global economy. As a result of an expanding wealth of information, the need for students to develop their research skills is increasingly important -- regardless of their major.”