Do you think of chemical engineers as life scientists? How about petroleum engineers? Surely there's nothing biological going on in a tank of gasoline? Not now perhaps, but millions of years ago that black ooze we call crude oil was alive, in the form of plant and animal matter. Hurrying the chemical breakdown of living matter into something we can burn in our cars is the challenge for some of today's brightest chemical engineers who work on turning algae into fuel in an efficient, sustainable green chemistry process.
(Get multimedia news on algae as biofuel at NSF News)
Scientists at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor are engaged in biofuel research within the College of Engineering as green chemists. The uniqueness of their approach to making fuel from biomass is in using all the parts of the algae cells they grow, which is different from biodiesel distillation where much of the cell gets discarded (and where the bio unit is often a cultivated soybean). Professor Phil Savage and his graduate students are going for 100% utilization, as well as rigorously testing the finished product not just to see if it will run a vehicle, but to make sure the manufacturing process is scalable. If it takes more energy to make fuel than is generated in the process, the experiment may be interesting, but not very valuable practically.
Yesterday we blogged about the President's Advanced Manufacturing Partnership, which includes the College of Engineering at U-Michigan as part of its academic consortium. Not only are university engineers helping increase efficiency and safety in manufacturing tomorrow's automobiles (some of them electric), but they're developing the next generation of fuel for those cars as well. And that includes going from producing something black and oozy in a laboratory test tube to running computer analysis and simulation programs to forecast and begin working on manufacturing challenges for the new biofuel product.
Professor Savage's biofuel research is made possible by a $2M NSF grant over 4 years (ending in 2013). All of his work is directed at the sustainable production of energy and chemical products. He is the recipient of various green chemistry awards and is a Faculty Fellow at the Michigan Memorial Phoenix Energy Institute (banner below) at the University of Michigan.
(Photo of Savage Group PhD candidate in green chemistry, Jie "Jacky" Fu, courtesy of website photo gallery)
Of the different projects being carried out by his lab team, Professor Savage writes:
"The unifying theme of research in our group is the elucidation of kinetics and mechanisms of chemical transformations in hot compressed water, or high-temperature water (HTW). Water at high temperatures and pressures displays interesting properties - such as an increased ion product, and a decreased dielectric constant, density, and viscosity -- which can favorably influence particular chemical transformations. The applications for our research range a number of fields. We are actively investigating biomass gasification, two-step non-catalytic biodiesel production, and organic synthesis in hot aqueous media."
Look forward to upcoming blogs on the National Robotics Initiative, a component of the President's Advanced Manufacturing Partnership program led by the NSF.
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