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Ohio University researchers on the hunt for cleaner, less expensive energy sources

ATHENS, Ohio (Nov. 20, 2006) -- With President Bush recently meeting with the CEOs of Detroit's automakers to discuss the need for the production of vehicles that use alternate fuels, the nation's transportation needs are taking a new direction. Ohio University researchers are doing their part to meet the demand for new fuel sources.

Engineering professors Ben Stuart and David Bayless are leading a team that has created a bioreactor that harvests algae for use as an alternative fuel source, a patented procedure they estimate is approximately two years away from the market. 

The biodiesel initiative holds the promise of shifting America's reliance on foreign oil toward domestic production of clean, renewable fuels in sufficient quantity to meet the demands of America's motorists.

"Ten years ago the U.S. Department of Energy tabled studies on trying to get fuel from algae because researchers thought diesel fuel would never get above the estimated $1.40 a gallon cost to produce biodiesel from algae," Stuart explained.  The technology has once again gained interest because of the war and soaring gas prices. However, the research for this type of fuel extraction hasn't come back full throttle.   

The United States produces 60 billion gallons of petroleum diesel a year, a number that has steadily increased since 1998.  This overall rise in demand, along with the rising payments at the pumps, puts a premium on the commercial production of an alternate fuel source. 

Bayless is director of the Coal Research Center and Stuart is director of the Biofuels Research Lab. Both are faculty members in Ohio University's Russ College of Engineering and Technology.

Biodiesel, a fuel that can be used in existing diesel engines with no changes and is made from vegetable oils or animal fats rather than petroleum, is the best alternative fuel at present for vehicles with diesel engines.  There are 60 to 80 percent fewer particulates (smoke) and hydrocarbons released than are produced when using petroleum diesel, and biofuels recycle carbon dioxide, instead of introducing new carbon to the atmosphere as petro-diesel does.                                                                                                         

Soybeans are the primary source for biodiesel and, in theory, the soybean fields of Ohio could become the oilfields of tomorrow.  This offers a potential boost for farmers -- 20 acres can produce 1,000 gallons per year (50-gallons per acre per year). However, soybeans can only be harvested once a year and their yield for biofuel is limited.  And with the U.S. demand at 60 billion gallons per year, it would take a crop area nearly 50 times the land area of Ohio, just to supply the diesel demand.

Algae (the source being used by Ohio University researchers), on the other hand, can be harvested almost continuously and has a much more efficient yield.  It produces 200 to 400 times as much biodiesel for the same acreage as does soybeans at 10,000 to 20,000 gallons per acre per year.  Algae can also be grown using vertical membranes in a bioreactor, allowing it to produce up to 10 times as much biodiesel, bringing the yield to 100,000 to 200,000 gallons per acre per year. 

Along with M.I.T. and some researchers at NASA, Stuart explained that Ohio University is certainly in the forefront of the research, and one of the first groups in 10 years to begin exploring biofuels feedstock technology from algae. 

"I think others will jump into it in the next few years," Stuart said.  "But it is nice that the university saw the opportunity to be one of the first ones there." 

Stuart and Bayless are part of the Consortium for Energy, Economics and the Environment (CE3). The CE3 unites faculty and students from the Voinovich Center for Leadership and Public Affairs and the Institute for Energy and the Environment to jointly tackle major energy and environmental issues, help legislators shape policy and provide new research opportunities for Ohio University students.

Funding the research is the Office of the Vice President of Research contributing $75,000, the 1804 Fund (part of the Ohio University Foundation) donating $25,000 and the Institute for Sustainable Energy in the Environment (part of the College of Engineering) giving $40,000. 

Currently, the cross-disciplinary project includes six Ohio University faculty members from four departments and two colleges, with more collaboration anticipated as the research progresses.

"One of the things I think is really unique is the cooperative nature of the research," Stuart said. "It's not just a department or a specialty; we have professors from many different sectors. This is a great example of solutions to energy and environment related issues that cross many different disciplines." 

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Media Contact: Ohio University engineering faculty members David Bayless, 740-593-0264, or Ben Stuart, 740-593-9455; Media Relations Coordinator Jessica Stark,  740-597-2938; or Director of Research Communications Andrea Gibson, 740-597-2166

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