Friday, April 22, 2011
Rising oil and gas prices, increasing environmental concern and the need to reduce U.S. dependence on foreign oil are just a few factors driving the billion dollar industry of biofuel research. While most research is devoted to identifying and developing sources for this renewable energy, few researchers are addressing the relatively high cost of getting biofuel to consumers at the pump.
SC State University Industrial and Electrical Engineering Professor, Jae-Dong Hong, is leading a team of engineering and economics professors on a three-year $449, 921 grant from the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s National Institute for Food and Agriculture (NIFA), to address this issue. Their proposed work is currently on display in Washington D.C., at the NIFA Waterfront Centre and will remain on display throughout the year.
The goal of this project is to meet long-range institutional research goals established by the James E. Clyburn University Transportation Center (JECUTC) to ensure that biofuel becomes a practical and economical alternative to gasoline by identifying ways to reduce logistics costs of transporting fuel.
“The cost of transporting, storing, handling and packaging this product makes up more than 25 percent of the total cost to make biofuel,” said Hong. “In order to make this energy source more competitive with gasoline, we have to minimize the logistics costs.”
“Biofuel gets a lot of subsidies from the government,” added co-researcher Yuanchang Xie, also an assistant professor of civil engineering technology. “That is why the price is so low, but without subsidies, the price of biofuel will be higher than gasoline.”
Biofuel is made from biomass derived from natural sources like plants or other renewable resources. According to Hong, biomass is first extracted in a collection center then transported to a biorefinery. From there it goes to a blending station where ethanol is mixed with the fuel. After this stage, the product is sent to the gasoline station. Hong explained that biomass is a perishable item and its storage and handling is different and more costly than gasoline.
The researchers are focusing on switchgrass which is native to South Carolina. The plant is proving to be a reliable and easily renewable source of biomass because of its ability to grow in abundance almost anywhere, its resistance to many pests and plant diseases, very little need for fertilizer and tolerance for agricultural problems like flooding and drought. This source is also good for the environment because it slows the buildup of greenhouse gases by removing carbon dioxide from the air. This is in contrast to gasoline which releases more and more carbon dioxide.
Switchgrass is abundant along Interstate 95 and has the potential to increase net farm revenue for local farmers in South Carolina, Hong cited.
“Interstate 95 has been called the corridor of shame because of economic decline in counties along the interstate,” Hong explained. “By reducing the logistics costs of biofuel and biomass, private companies will be encouraged to invest in this area because of the potential for profit. These companies will build collection centers and biorefineries to convert the biomass they purchase from local farmers.”
“We all know biofuel is good,” said Xie. “But if producing or selling biofuel is not profitable the private sector will not come in. Our research has good potential to reduce the cost of biofuel and make it more profitable.”
Alleviating logistics costs of transporting future fuels align with the JECUTC programmatic goals of being a resource for the transportation industry as it relates to biofuel. And, according to Dr. Charles Wright, JECUTC executive director, research similar to Hong will be beneficial to the overall production of biofuel – from the farm to the pumps.
“With the present national dependence on fossil fuel and the high cost of the production of biofuel, any reduction in the cost of the process will be a value added activity,” said Wright.
Hong and Xie form part of the research team along with SC State’s Economics and Agribusiness Professor Haile Selassie. The team is also working in conjunction with Optimization Model Researcher and Industrial and Systems Engineering Associate Professor Halit Üster from Texas A&M University. Additionally, the research team works with students who are expected to benefit tremendously from the experience.
Hong’s research grant is one of two 1890 Institution Research, Extension and Teaching Capacity Building Grants (CBGs) awarded to the University by NIFA. The federal agency awards 1890 CBGs to the 18 Historically Black Colleges and Universities to support various agriculture training and research programs.
“The Division of Research commends Dr. Hong and his research team for the recognition they received from the National Institute for Food and Agriculture. With the research on display in such a national venue, people from all over will learn of the extraordinary work being conducted at SC State University,” said Dr. G. Dale Wesson, professor, vice president of Research, Economic Development and Public Service and executive director of 1890 Programs.
On completion of this project, the team expects to publish their research and display their findings at NIFA’s Waterfront Centre in Washington D.C.