New Fuels at Hand
How can this tiny plastic plate produce biodiesel 100 times faster than a large refinery? Therein lies the paradox of microtechnology. Less is indeed more when it comes to the chemical reaction that converts alcohol and oil into fuel. When, for example, ethanol and canola oil are injected into the hair-width channels etched into the plate, their molecules are forced into very close contact. That’s why the transformation happens so quickly.
Oregon leaders on both sides of the political aisle struck a unified note last January, calling on scientists and entrepreneurs to step up R&D in alternative energy technologies.
At the annual statewide economic summit in Portland, Governor Ted Kulongoski challenged the state to be “a leader in bringing energy independence to America.” Both U.S. senators voiced strong agreement. Democrat Ron Wyden vowed to lead an effort to make Oregon “the green-energy capital of the world” by investing in forest biomass technology. And Republican Gordon Smith noted that the development of alternative fuels is “absolutely essential to our nation’s future.”
Alternative energy sources can be found in places as plentiful as seawater and as ordinary as corn. The challenge is to capture and convert those natural stores of energy efficiently and economically. To that end, OSU got a considerable boost in 2004 when it was named one of the nation’s five Sun Grant Centers by the federal Sun Grant Initiative for “bioenergy” — power derived from living organisms or their byproducts. As the lead university for a nine-state region, OSU will use its four-year, $8 million grant to develop technologies for turning agricultural products into clean, renewable fuels.
Meanwhile, in labs across campus — from microbiology to nanotechnology, chemistry and engineering — OSU’s energy studies are already yielding important findings. Research on two of the Pacific Northwest’s most bountiful untapped resources — ocean waves and forest biomass — were featured in the last issue of Terra (Spring 2006). Here, we take readers inside some of OSU’s other leading endeavors in the “green” revolution.
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Biodiesel is free of the metals and harmful chemicals that plague petroleum products — so free, in fact, that it is “essentially harmless to the environment,” notes OSU chemical engineering professor Goran Jovanovic. “If it spills on soil or in waterways, nature will take care of it in a few days.”
A blend of alcohol (ethanol or methanol) and oil from food plants such as canola or soy, biodiesel offers a nonpolluting option for powering not only cars and trucks, but also boats, chainsaws, lawnmowers and recreational vehicles such as four-wheelers and snowmobiles. It also promises to open lucrative new markets to farmers.
But there’s a roadblock to widespread use: production methods that are slow, inefficient and energy intensive. So Jovanovic and a team of researchers affiliated with the Oregon Nanoscience and Microtechnologies Institute (ONAMI) are pioneering a way to manufacture biodiesel that is not only fast and streamlined, but also portable.
In contrast to biorefineries, where big batches are stirred in giant vats for hours, Jovanovic and his fellow scientists can make the fuel in 10 minutes or less by using microtechnology. Here’s how it works: Thirty parallel channels — 100 microns wide, about the width of a human hair — are etched into a plastic plate smaller than a credit card. Thin streams of alcohol and oil are injected into each “microchannel.” Because the alcohol and oil molecules are in close contact all along the channel, the chemical reaction that turns them into biodiesel happens 100 times faster than it does in the macroscopic reactors typically used in large refineries. Thousands of the microchannels stacked side-by-side to create a microreactor the size of a suitcase could produce one million gallons of biodiesel a year.
Jovanovic envisions small farmers producing biodiesel right beside their canola fields — or even consumers whipping up personal-sized batches of biofuels in microchannel reactors available online or at the local big-box store. Freed from dependence on giant power companies and oil-rich countries, Jovanovic says, “Every single person would be empowered to produce energy for themselves.”
Oceans and freshwater lakes contain an ancient class of microscopic organisms that could be the holy grail of hydrogen production: cyanobacteria.
To power a new generation of clean energy systems, OSU bioengineers are studying ways to harness hydrogen from these super-abundant microbes. Formerly called “blue-green algae” because of their plant-like ability to harvest sunlight, cyanobacteria use solar energy not only to make life-sustaining sugars — they also can make hydrogen. Roger Ely and Frank Chaplen are researching ways to tap that fuel source for tomorrow’s commuters, homeowners and businesses.
Their work centers on overcoming a stumbling block: oxygen. Cyanobacteria stop making hydrogen when oxygen is present. So, with $900,000 from the U.S. Department of Energy, the team hopes to develop a new capability in these photosynthetic bacteria — “oxygen tolerance.” Once the researchers solve the oxygen puzzle, cyanobacteria could eliminate the biggest barrier to affordable hydrogen production — fossil fuels. Most hydrogen today is produced from petroleum. Besides adding greenhouse gases to the atmosphere, the net energy gain is negligible. If OSU’s engineers can exploit the cycle of one of Earth’s oldest, most plentiful organisms, hydrogen could make gasoline obsolete.
Calling cyanobacteria the “ideal energy device” because they are non-toxic and low-cost, Ely believes that eons of evolution and adaptation can help us learn how to capture and convert solar energy. “Nature,” he says, “has worked this out so well.”
OSU’s recent breakthroughs in reactor safety signal the rebirth of an industry long dogged by the risk of radioactive leaks.
An international leader in the development of failsafe ways to extract energy from atoms, Professor José Reyes has for a decade been steering the design of nuclear reactors that reduce risk through simplicity. The valves, pumps and pipes that operate older plants mechanically are replaced by natural forces — gravity, convection, evaporation and condensation — that, in case of an accident, cool the core “passively.”
“We’re moving toward a new safety culture in the development of nuclear power,” says Reyes, who directed a 14-nation research program on passive nuclear technology at the United Nations International Atomic Energy Agency in Vienna in 2004. Recently certified by the Nuclear Regulatory Commission, one new-era model tested at OSU for Westinghouse could be under construction in a few years, he predicts. Known as the AP-1000, it has been selected for six new nuclear power projects announced in the last year by U.S. energy utilities.
One of the ultra-safe reactors on OSU’s drawing board is a compact modular unit that can be sealed up and loaded onto a train for transport. Requiring no onsite fueling, it poses a near-zero risk for leaks. When buried safely in underground silos, these self-contained reactors could help fill worldwide demand for small-scale, portable energy systems. Another planned model has the potential to be a double-duty renewable. It operates at ultra-high temperatures, actually “cracking” water molecules to free up hydrogen. By making hydrogen at the same time it generates electricity, the thermal reactor could light houses and fuel cars, cleanly and cheaply.
Reyes is the first holder of the Henry W. and Janice J. Schuette Chair in the Department of Nuclear Engineering and Radiation Health Physics at OSU.
Blowin’ in the Wind
Where the Wind Blows
OSU engineer Stel Walker received support from the National Renewable Energy Laboratory to provide wind data and validate model-based predictions. See a NREL map of Oregon (PDF) showing wind energy potential and electricity transmission line routes.
When it blows strong and steady, wind is a cost-effective energy source. To guide decisions on wind-farm development, many Northwest agencies, developers and farmers rely on OSU’s long-term “wind feasibility” studies and research.
An early frontrunner in wind research, OSU’s Energy Resources Research Laboratory (ERRL) specializes in assessing wind-power potential for private and public landowners. One community sizing up its wind power is the Warm Springs Indian Reservation in central Oregon. Whether tribal lands are windy enough to justify investment in a large-scale commercial wind farm is the subject of a five-year study commissioned by Warm Springs Power Enterprises. The university is also partnering with Bonneville Power Administration on a wind forecasting/integration study and with the Oregon Energy Trust, loaning anemometers to electricity customers of Portland General Electric and Pacific Power who want to measure the wind potential of their home or business.
For wind to become a “prominent and dependable” energy resource in the region, reliable ways of predicting and measuring wind are critical, says Stel Walker, professor of mechanical engineering and ERRL director. “This is very important in the Pacific Northwest,” he notes, “where the region’s complex topography has a strong influence on the strength and variation of the wind.”
Catching Some Rays
Using furnaces as hot as 1,700 degrees centigrade, OSU chemists and engineers are forging novel compounds that could give new life to the solar energy industry. Their research into advanced solar-cell materials — ones that absorb more light, produce higher voltage and work more efficiently — holds promise for an exponential expansion of sun-based power generation.
“Most of the solar technologies in use today date back at least 25 years,” says Douglas Keszler, Department of Chemistry chair. “The cells you put on your roof are only about 10 percent efficient. We’re looking for high-performance materials with at least 25 percent efficiency.”
With funding from the National Renewable Energy Laboratory, Keszler and electrical engineering professor John Wager are investigating oxides as the “optimal materials” to replace yesterday’s solar-cell mainstays — silicon (capturing only a limited light spectrum), cadmium telluride (hazardous to the environment), and copper indium diselenide (scarce and expensive).
When Keszler looks into the future of solar energy, he doesn’t see millions of rooftops sporting solar panels, installed and maintained by homeowners. Rather, he imagines neighborhoods drawing electricity from nearby “solar farms,” built and operated by local power companies.
“There’s so much solar energy available,” says Keszler. “One peak hour of sun shining on the U.S. provides enough energy to power the whole world for a year. It’s incredible to me that the world’s solar program isn’t 10 times its current size.”