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Our Energy Future: Biofuel

BY JASMINE ZHU
Daily Staff Reporter
Published April 15, 2009

With its rich abundance of corn and soybeans, the state of Michigan is in a prime position to become a leader in bioenergy. Bioenergy currently serves as the second leading source of renewable energy, according to the U.S. Department of Energy.

Bioenergy, which accounts for 3 percent of the total energy used in the country according to the U.S. Department of Energy, is a renewable energy source that uses materials of biological origin and directly generates biofuel.

Derived from recently deceased organisms biofuel commonly comes in the form of ethanol or renewable diesel.

Center for Entrepreneurship Director Thomas Zurbuchen said the possibility of biofuels becoming a viable replacement for traditional energy sources like fossil fuels will be dictated by how much land people are willing to devote to harvesting the technology.

“You need massive amounts of non-food competing biomass that do not create other problems like soil erosion,” he said.

Zurbuchen, who is also a professor in the College of Engineering, added that the future of biofuel as a source of alternative energy is often called into question due to its commercial inviability. Many factors in the economy would have to change in order to achieve sustainable biofuel production.

“The issue is more about economics and the critical density of vehicles and fueling stations together to make alternative fuels practical and profitable,” he said. “There is the classic chicken-and-egg problem there.”

Currently, the University’s Michigan Memorial Phoenix Energy Institute is in the process of developing a biomass harvester that will efficiently convert biomass into biofuels.

The objective of the biomass harvester is to affordably provide farmers with a tool to efficiently process waste into biofuel. It does this through a thermochemical decomposition process and by effectively controlling heat losses during the process.

Funding for the project stands currently at $50,000 per year, but officials at the institute are hoping to increase funding to $200,000 per year.

Students at the University and around the state are also working to develop biofuel technology.

Algal Scientific Corporation, which is made up of students from the University of Michigan and Michigan State University, developed a wastewater treatment system that grows algae in order to simultaneously treat wastewater and produce the raw materials for biofuel.

The team won the inaugural Clean Energy Prize on March 20 in a competition sponsored by DTE Energy, the University, the Masco Corporation Foundation and The Kresge Foundation that awards entrepreneurship in the development of clean energy technology. Team Algal Scientific Corp. took the top prize of $65,000.

Paul Kirsch, program manager of the Zell Lurie Institute for Entrepreneurial Studies at the Ross School of Business, said the institute helps to develop more clean energy sources by supporting many student groups like Algal Scientific.

“ZLI does not provide direct support for outside firms,” Kirsch said. “We have provided a tremendous amount of coaching and funding for some student-based teams like Algal Scientific that won the Clean Energy Prize.”

According to Algal Scientific’s website, the technology is used to “design, build and sell treatment systems incorporating factory assembled modules, then operate them for fees based on pollutant reduction.”

Team member Robert Levine, a Chemical Engineering Ph.D student, said biofuels, although biofuels are important to the company, they're really just byproducts of the team’s project. The main purpose of Algal Scientific is to serve as a wastewater treatment company.

“Algal Scientific Corp. didn't choose to use biofuels or not,” he said. “Rather, we're treating wastewater while producing a biofuel. Our unique system allows us to grow algae on wastewater which are then converted into a liquid transportation fuel like ethanol.”

Levine added that there is still much progress to be made in order for biofuels to become a feasible alternative for traditional energy sources because many biofuels currently lead to increased greenhouse gas emissions.

“We need a replacement for liquid fuels that is not derived from food crops and does not require arable land or freshwater to be produced,” he said. “If we can do this with algae, we might have a shot at cutting our dependence on petroleum, but it is still going to take time.”

Levine said the University has been very receptive to alternative energy ventures like Algal Scientific.

“In general, the University is working hard to connect engineers to the Business School, and the various opportunities that exist for moving technology from the laboratory and into the real world,” he said.


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