University President Mary Sue Coleman, along with the presidents of Michigan State University and Wayne State University, announced plans to fund about $800,000 worth of research on “revolutionary but feasible” alternative energy projects Thursday.

The new projects, which focus on expanding ethanol and thermoelectric energy production, are part of continued efforts by the University Research Corridor. The URC, formed in 2006, is a partnership between the University of Michigan, Michigan State and Wayne State, designed to strengthen and expand Michigan’s economy through research and development projects.

One of the URC grants, worth about $523,000, will give four faculty members from the URC universities the opportunity to improve existing thermoelectric materials. According to WSU professor Stephanie Brock, one of the researchers chosen for the project, that could be good news for domestic automakers with an eye on efficiency.

The WSU chemistry professor said capturing heat released through a car’s tailpipe would help improve fuel efficiency, since about 70 percent of the energy in every gallon of gasoline is currently wasted as heat. Brock also said that turning the captured energy into electricity means it could be used to power other parts of a car.

“We’ll basically take the waste heat that comes from your car, the heat that you burn as fuel, and actually use it to create electricity,” Brock said.

A primary goal of this research is to develop a way to capture between 10 and 15 percent of that lost heat energy.

Though thermoelectric technology is already being used in more expensive cars that feature heating and cooling systems built in to the seats, Brock said that another purpose of this research is to make thermoelectric electric materials less expensive and more efficient.

Brock said improving the materials shouldn’t take more than a few years, but developing a thermoelectric device that could be installed on the tailpipe of millions of domestically manufactured automobiles is a long-term goal.

“The expectation is that based on these results were going to be able to go and get some major external funding and hopefully this will end up resulting in new devices and new manufacturing in the state,” Brock said.

The second URC grant, worth about $283,000, was awarded to four researchers who hope to develop new ways to expand ethanol production with an environmentally friendly approach. It will focus on producing ethanol from switchgrass and wood waste materials.

Ilsoon Lee, an assistant professor at MSU and one of the group’s researchers, said this research will develop better ways to process these materials and take an emphasis off of corn-based ethanol production.

Lee said it’s expensive to use existing technology to produce ethanol from the more eco-friendly resources because there isn’t as much research on them and they don’t break down as easily as traditional corn.

But with the new grant money, Lee said the researchers have a plan to develop new enzymes that would the lower the reaction temperature and reduce the amount of time needed to convert the waste materials into ethanol.

Lee said another obstacle to using waste products is their varying chemical structures, making a different enzyme is necessary to process each type of material.

“With corn it’s all the same, so the process has been developed already since only one type of enzyme is needed,” Lee said.

When Coleman officially unveiled the two new projects late last week, she said the URC was designed with precisely these kinds of research projects in mind.

“We established the URC to tackle big issues, and what bigger technology challenge is there than rising oil prices, which create a burden on the national economy and particularly Michigan’s economy,” Coleman said. “We must act.”

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