Rowan Teams Tackle Alternative Fuels

As filling up at the fuel pump becomes more and more expensive, teams of Rowan University professors and students are working on several projects that may some day ease consumers? pain. Drs. Brian
As filling up at the fuel pump becomes more and more expensive, teams of Rowan University professors and students are working on several projects that may some day ease consumers? pain.

Drs. Brian Lefebvre and Mariano Savelski, Chemical Engineering professors; Dr. Gregory Hecht, Biological Sciences professor and department chair; and Dr. Patricia Mosto, interim associate provost and former chair of the Biological Sciences Department, have been researching developing improved bacterial strains for bioethanol production.

?The overall goal is to improve our ability to produce ethanol from renewable sources. This will help relieve our national dependence on foreign oil and establish a path to energy independence,? Lefebvre said.

Funded by the National Science Foundation, the team members started working in the fall of 2003 and plan to continue their efforts for at least two more years. Students have helped conduct this research as part of an engineering clinic during the academic year and as independent research during summer break.

The project has focused on developing enhanced bacterial catalysts for the transformation of waste biomass, such as corn stover -- stalks and leaves left after the corn has been combined -- to ethanol.

?Recently, ethanol production from corn and other sugary crops has come under fire for energy inefficiency; there is a debate over whether we use more energy in the corn production and fermentation process than we obtain from the resulting ethanol,? Lefebvre said. ?With corn stover, the economics are much more favorable. Corn stover is the largest U.S. biomass source, is relatively inexpensive and could be harvested with little additional outlay of energy, as corn stover is generally plowed into the soil after the corncobs are harvested. However, the sugars that are present in corn stover are not as easily fermentable as those present in sugary crops, which necessitates the development of improved bacterial strains for this fermentation.?

The Rowan students are spending one year working in the Biological Sciences Department, where they develop new bacterial strains with desired properties. During their second year on the project, they work in the Engineering building, evaluating their strains through test fermentations.

The team believes its work can have an impact. Noted Hecht, ?Domestic sources aren?t capable of meeting the current demand in a way that will profoundly impact the retail gasoline price. If people want cheaper energy, then the sort of research we are doing is long overdue. And there?s another plus: alternative fuel sources have the additional benefit of producing fewer undesirable emissions. The biggest sources of air pollution in this country are personal motor vehicles; nothing else even comes close.?

Also at Rowan, Drs. Anthony Marchese and Krishan Bhatia, Mechanical Engineering professors, and Dr. Robert Hesketh, Chemical Engineering professor and department chair, and their students are exploring other aspects of alternative fuels as part of an engineering clinic. Under a grant from the New Jersey Department of Transportation, the team is researching oxides of nitrogen (NOx) emissions -- in particular nitric oxide and nitrogen dioxide -- from oxygenated fuels, specifically biodiesel fuels. Biodiesel fuels are forms of diesel derived from plants or animal fats as opposed to petroleum (in the United States, typically from soybean oil).

?Biodiesel decreases most harmful emissions but increases NOx slightly,? said Marchese, who has researched fuels for 15 years and alternative fuels for four years. ?If you run biodiesel in a diesel engine, all the emissions go down -- soot, carbon monoxide, unburned hydrocarbons -- except one. Most studies have shown that NOx increases slightly, and this has impact on atmospheric pollution, particularly ground-level ozone. So this is a problem, and it has made people a little bit wary of using biodiesel. We are looking at trying to understand why NOx increases and looking at ways to decrease the NOx.?

On the practical end, Marchese and his colleagues have been testing school buses and other vehicles that use biodiesel to quantify their actual emissions. Most previous studies, Marchese said, have been performed using engines in a lab setting. ?When you test these biodiesels in actual on-road conditions -- particularly blends of biodiesel and diesel -- you sometimes don?t see as much NOx emission as you do in a lab. What we?re finding is the results aren?t as bad as people expect.?

Marchese has also been working under a National Science Foundation grant burning single drops of biodiesel fuel in a lab to try to understand the chemistry in the flame, also an attempt to determine at a fundamental level why biodiesel fuels increase NOx.

Tips for drivers from Rowan professors:

-- If you are looking for a new vehicle, consider those with higher fuel efficiency or maybe even a vehicle powered by alternative fuels.

-- Conserve gasoline through standard means ? more efficient driving (properly inflated tires, fewer jack-rabbit starts and screeching stops), carpooling, and better planning to combine trips.

-- Use human power for transportation ? bike and walk more.