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K-State researchers working to find alternative energy sources

By Shannon Hartenstein Krueger, K-Stater magazine


From heating your home to fueling your car, the rising cost of energy is a hot topic for Americans.

It's also at the heart of a new Kansas State University initiative to bring experts together from across campus to position the university as a national and world leader in renewable and sustainable energy research.

A newly developed coalition of K-State researchers, the K-State Center for Sustainable Energy, aims to develop a universitywide, integrated research, teaching and outreach program with a focus on sustainable energy production and use. In particular, K-State is studying alternative and renewable energy and the related economic opportunities for Kansas.

"We recognized the need to have a campuswide effort to study renewable and sustainable energy," said Sue Peterson, K-State assistant to the president and director of governmental relations. "Our goal is to make sure K-State resources -- people, facilities and projects -- are helping solve a problem for the future of the country."

Most of the traditional energy resources within the United States, such as coal, oil and gas, are limited due to their nonrenewable nature, making it critical that America investigate and develop renewable and sustainable energy, said M. Duane Nellis, K-State provost.

Currently, K-State is providing strategic and significant research in a wide range of sustainable energy areas that extend from biofuels linked to agricultural crops to sustainable architecture in buildings, Nellis said. Researchers from three colleges and dozens of departments are working on a diverse array of energy-related topics.

"The center will allow K-State to take current research to a higher level of success and visibility by creating an opportunity for more effective synergies and coordination among the various K-State sustainable energy groups," Nellis said.

With volatile oil prices creating frustration at fuel pumps, alternative fuels like ethanol and biodiesel are gaining more attention. But instead of corn, K-State researchers are evaluating feedstocks as more long-term solutions.

"With the rapid growth in the ethanol industry, we need to find new feedstocks because we see limits to grain-based ethanol," said Ron Madl, director of K-State's Bioprocessing and Industrial Value Added Program.

In 2006, ethanol production consumed 17 percent of the U.S. corn crop to produce only 4 percent of our transportation fuel, Madl said. Americans consume 140 billion gallons of gasoline per year, while grain-produced ethanol amounted to only 5 billion gallons, he said.

"Even if we used all of our starch-based grain resources for ethanol, we would produce less than half of our transportation fuel needs," Madl said.

Grain used for fuel takes away from the established food and feed uses, he said.

"This is why the ethanol industry must soon make a transition to using cellulosic feedstock, such as sorghum, corn stover or stalks, and switchgrass," Madl said. "These feedstocks do not compete with our food sources."

K-State also is interested in canola, sunflower and other oilseed crops for biodiesel production. Agricultural residues and byproducts such as corn stover, wheat straw, soy hulls and wheat bran also can be used to produce ethanol, Hargrove said.

However, just because a crop seems to be a viable alternative to corn doesn't mean it is a good alternative. Richard Nelson, associate professor of engineering and head of the Kansas Industrial Extension Service, is interested in the feasibility of utilizing crop residues, which often are left on fields to control erosion, protect water quality and improve crop production. Removing these materials could result in negative agricultural and environmental effects.

The success of using alternative biofuel inputs will depend on finding ways to balance both interests, according to K-State experts.

Other research focuses on effective uses of the byproducts, like distillers grains, a byproduct of ethanol production commonly fed to livestock, and glycerin, a biodiesel byproduct fed to poultry.

"We must determine how to best use them and how they fit into the diets of livestock," Hargrove said. "We don't want to generate additional waste that we can't get rid of."

Nuclear power also has been receiving favorable attention around the world, said Ken Shultis, K-State professor of mechanical and nuclear engineering. Currently, this energy source provides approximately 20 percent of the electricity in America, he said.

"In 2007, we expect the first new American plant to be built in decades," he said, noting that the last one was built in the 1970s and other existing plants are being relicensed.

With its history as a center for nuclear power research, K-State will continue to contribute to the industry, Shultis said. Currently, K-State is working on new and applied research for better technology in new nuclear plants to help them run more efficiently and safely, he said.

"We are developing a niche area specializing in design, fabrication and application of radiation detectors," he said.

Another focus at K-State is creating novel reactor designs that are more efficient and less expensive to operate, Shultis said. "K-State will play a fundamental role in the next generation of nuclear engineers with new types of nuclear reactor designs," he said.


Spring/Summer 2007