October 11, 2009

Project to draw fuel from algae

"Alternative fuels" is not a term used in many everyday conversations. Occasionally, one will hear scientists or politicians using the phrase because they are concerned about a possible energy crisis. So, what do alternative fuels have to do with Eastern? Thanks to a new project called CRAFT, Eastern is now a major part of unprecedented alternative fuel technology research.

The purpose of the project is to create alternative fuels in order to conserve the non-renewable resources, such as oil and coal that the world is currently using in various industries.

"It is vital that we figure out alternative fuel possibilities early, or else we will be rushing around during a fuel crisis trying to figure it out," said Gary Selby, a senior agricultural education major from Ashland, Ky. Selby has been involved with the CRAFT project since the initial research when the project began.

Eastern officially announced its partnership with General Atomics, an energy-related company based in San Diego, in December 2008. The partnership was formed in order to undertake a new project known as the Center for Renewable and Alternative Fuel Technologies, or CRAFT. CRAFT is developing processes of converting biomass into a biodiesel fuel that could be used to run most engines.

To put it more simply, Bruce Pratt, the chair of Eastern's Department of Agriculture, said that biomass, or plant-derived material, will be broken down to release sugars (namely glucose). These sugars will be fed to a special type of heterotrophic algae that does not require sunlight to grow. The algae will then be harvested and the oil used to create diesel fuel will be extracted.

"Diesel is what industry runs on," Pratt said. "Trucks on highways, trains and ocean freighters primarily run on diesel."

Pratt said that CRAFT is different from other alternative fuel projects because it will not cause as much controversy.

"This process won't create a food versus fuel issue like the [process of] corn to ethanol production did," he said.

Pratt said General Atomics initially approached Eastern in 2007 about the project. General Atomics met with Eastern President Doug Whitlock and Representative Ben Chandler about the possibility of alternative fuel research at Eastern, and the CRAFT partnership was born.

The project is being funded by a combination of federal, state and university grants, Pratt said. Most of these grants have only been approved recently.

Some of the funding sources include a grant from the Defense Logistics Agency, as well as a grant from the Governor's office of Agricultural Policy. Both of these grants were approved just this month, bringing the total amount of grant money given to CRAFT to over $4.3 million.

The Department of Agriculture is not the only participant from Eastern working on the project. Professors from several departments, including chemistry, biology and economics, have contributed to the preliminary research, Pratt said.

Even a few students have climbed on board. Selby said he heard about CRAFT in one of his agricultural classes and immediately wanted to get involved.

"I am interested in the biofuel industry and the laboratory work that goes into it," Selby said.

Selby worked with a few other students in the spring when the project officially began, but he is now the only student working on the CRAFT team, helping with its research.

"We are gathering test materials to run various lab essays to decide which cellulosic materials would produce enough sugars to feed the heterotrophic algae," Selby said. "We are in the preliminary stages-gathering materials and hypothesizing procedures."

CRAFT has been researching biofuel possibilities in nearby Winchester in Clark County, according to Selby and Pratt.

The CRAFT team has surveyed some of the land in that area to see how much biomass is available. Pratt, along with Don Llewellyn of the Eastern agricultural department, worked on a manuscript that demonstrated to General Atomics that there is enough biomass in this area of Kentucky to support a "pilot plant."

"We want to build a plant with experimental level production where we will create biodiesel and certain other biofuels," Selby said. "The plant will be responsible for growing the algae, feeding the algae, extracting the oil from the algae and then refining the oil into different grades of fuel."

The research the CRAFT team has gathered so far is to determine whether a useful biodiesel can be extracted from the algae, but if a plant is built, then the experiment will be whether the plant could mass-produce the biodiesel fuel.

General Atomics would provide the funds for the creation of the plant, Selby said. He also said that if the pilot plant is successful, then other pilot plants across the U.S. might be built in the future.

Both Pratt and Selby are very excited about the opportunities that this project has brought to Eastern as well as Kentucky. Pratt said the project is "a new frontier."

"[CRAFT] gives Kentucky agriculture an alternative for traditional crops grown in Kentucky," Pratt said.

The project is beneficial to Eastern as a way to gain national recognition, Selby said.

"EKU should be proud that we got the project rather than other colleges," Selby said. "This will put EKU on the map."

For more information or news about CRAFT, visit www.craft.eku.edu.

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