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Ohio University chemical engineering professor granted $1.5M for biofuels research

David Neri and Pete Shooner | Oct 31, 2016
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Ohio University chemical engineering professor granted $1.5M for biofuels research

David Neri and Pete Shooner | Oct 31, 2016

A professor of chemical engineering at Ohio University’s Russ College of Engineering and Technology has recently received a $1.5 million research grant from the Department of Energy (DOE) to make biorefineries more efficient and more profitable by helping reduce the cost of environmentally friendly biofuels.

Assistant Professor John Staser, who also works at the Russ College’s Center for Electrochemical Engineering Research, will lead an interdisciplinary team to develop ways to process lignin – a common organic polymer found in biomass and one of the main waste products in the biorefining process – into resins and resin binders that can be used in construction and other industries.

According to Staser, the team hopes their solution to this problem will help the biofuels industry overcome one of its major persistent hurdles: cost.

“It’s not really competitive with gasoline, especially if oil is $40 a barrel,” Staser said. “Before this biofuel becomes feasible, we have to find a way to reduce the manufacturing cost. One way to do this is to come up with a secondary revenue stream for the refinery. So, if biorefineries could use waste lignin to do so, biofuel would become a more financially feasible option.”

The project represents part of a larger push by the DOE to develop the economic viability of alternative energy sources, especially those that don’t cut into food supply.

“Right now, there are only a few commercial biofuels, like biodiesel and corn ethanol,” Staser said. “Those fuels face problems like infrastructure compatibility, sustainability, and questions of using feedstocks for food or fuel. The Department of Energy is interested in fuels that avoid those problems, like second generation advanced hydrocarbon biofuels that are generated from non-edible feedstocks, like crop waste.”

Project partners include Hexion Inc., an Ohio-based specialty chemicals company, Lakehead University in Ontario, Canada, as well as OHIO Professor of Chemistry and Biochemistry Peter Harrington. Much of the research will be conducted at CEER’s 20,000 square-foot research facility in Athens, Ohio.

“CEER provides the facilities and a lot of the support for getting projects like ours funded,” Staser said. “Without having a lab or a Center like we do over at CEER, it would be hard to do work like this.”