Research Applies to Human Issues of Diabetes, Obesity
By Tim Duey
Nebraska's biofuels industry is changing and growing quickly. Ethanol is currently the state's dominant biofuel, but tough new standards in California, a state that consumes 27 percent of all Nebraska ethanol, according to the Nebraska Corn Board, threatens to take a billion dollar chunk out of the market.
The University of Nebraska-Lincoln is attracting top talent and investing millions of dollars in research to improve the marketability of Nebraska ethanol by lowering its carbon footprint, proving that it is environmentally friendly enough to meet California's environmental standards
so it can continue to compete in that market. Solutions such as burning corn stalks to fuel ethanol plants and using the distiller's grains created as an ethanol byproduct have been proposed, and in the case of distiller's grains, even implemented. But though it still may be years from viability, algal biofuels may be a permanent solution to some strict environmental standards. Dr. George Oyler, a UNL research scientist who has earned both M.D. and Ph.D. degrees, is on the cutting edge of algal biofuel research.
"Corn-based ethanol has taken a lot of criticism over time," Oyler said. "We believe that there is huge potential for corn-based ethanol to continue its improvement and efficiency and in fact, by coupling corn-based ethanol processes with growing algae, we hope to move corn-based ethanol from a first-generation biofuel to an advanced biofuel."
Biofuels made directly from food crops are known as first-generation biofuels, while biofuels made from non-food crops and waste products are known as second-generation biofuels. Since George W. Bush signed the first Renewable Fuels Standard, or RFS, into law in 2005, ethanol production has become an important player in Nebraska's agricultural economy. Agriculture is the state's most important industry, and according to a fact sheet by the USDA Economic Research Service, there are about 50,000,000 acres, or 92% of the state's land, being used for agricultural purposes.
California has passed the Low Carbon Fuel Standards (LCFS) program, which will mean that Nebraska will have to reduce its ethanol carbon footprint by 10% by the year 2020 if it is to continue to sell ethanol to California, according to a policy analysis factsheet produced by the University of California for the California Energy Commission. Currently, Nebraska sells roughly a billion dollars of its ethanol to California.
Leading a Technological Revolution
Though ethanol is currently the most economically-viable of all biofuels, it is by no means the only one. Oyler is the business face of a large research effort aimed at developing the viability of algal biofuels. The team of researchers he works with hope to genetically engineer algae that eventually will produce enough oil to help fuel the world, but they are starting from the beginning.
"This is a new frontier, really. If you look at corn, let's say, it's taken 8,000 years to go from a small grass to these beautiful ears of corn that are highly productive, and in fact if you go from 1920 to the year 2000, there's been a quadrupling or more of productivity of corn," Oyler said. "We're starting where we were 8,000 years ago with algae to make it an agricultural crop and we need to use research to do that in 20 years rather than 8,000 years, or to compress that 80 years of huge increase in productivity of corn down to eight years." It will be at least five years and probably closer to a decade before algae-based biofuels are ready to go to market, according to Oyler.
The New Technology
In addition to developing biofuels, there are also important non-biofuel-related technologies being developed from the algae research being done at UNL. Technology is being developed to make algae useful for cleaning up pollution from feedlots and also to further medical research, such as the study of lipids.
"Understanding how lipids are used in algae actually can have impact all the way up to understanding how lipids are used in human tissues (like) the liver and fat cells," Oyler said. "And that can help us understand diabetes and obesity."
According to Oyler, by melding algal biofuel technology with existing corn-based ethanol technology, Nebraska can eventually make its ethanol more environmentally-friendly and competitive. UNL researchers hope to do this by feeding biofuel-producing algae with ethanol byproducts like carbon dioxide from fermentation. This would reduce ethanol's carbon footprint while producing more fuel. But in order to do that, university scientists must first find efficient ways to grow algae.
"To make algae successful in leading to a biofuel, we really have to start with engineering the containers of the systems called photobio reactors that the algae are grow in," Oyler said. "Those can be as simple as paddlewheel-stirred ponds, to something much more sophisticated."
After that's achieved, the researchers have learned to keep their newly-developed crop alive long enough to get oil from it. There are a host of viruses that prey on algae, and they could pose a major obstacle to any kind of large-scale exploitation of a single kind of algae for biofuel.
"What we know from agriculture is when you have a single crop in an area, ultimately you'll get some... potentially disastrous diseases," Oyler said. "We don't even know the viruses that are out there, and if you look at a gallon of ocean water, it's filled with algae viruses and we're going to need to understand those much better ... a lot of that world-leading work is coming from here."
Oyler and his research associates have found national sources of funding for their research. The U.S. Department of Energy is contributing almost $2 million to the biofuels research of Dr. Paul Black, a member of the UNL algae research team, and The National Science Foundation is contributing almost $9 million over five years towards algal biofuels research through its Experimental Program to Stimulate Competitive Research (EPSCOR.)
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