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MSU energy researchers forge links with industry
By Patti Drapala
MSU Ag Communications
MISSISSIPPI STATE – Abundant natural resources and a good infrastructure give Mississippi a competitive advantage as a major supplier of renewable energy, and Mississippi State University is conducting research and connecting with industry to help the state reach its potential.
The university’s Sustainable Energy Research Center is a collaboration of faculty in 12 disciplines representing agriculture, forestry, science, economics and engineering. These researchers investigate the potential of materials and naturally occurring processes in the Southeast as sources for renewable energy.
“Energy is a central issue in the state,” said center director William Batchelor, head of the MSU Department of Agricultural and Biological Engineering. “Gov. Haley Barbour has directed the newly formed Mississippi Energy Policy Institute to devise an energy strategy to position Mississippi as a leader in providing renewable energy.”
Many MSU energy researchers are making significant breakthroughs in their work, but they need feedback from the people who can implement their developments. MSU’s Sustainable Energy Research Center serves as a catalyst to forge partnerships linking academia, business and government.
For the past four years, the center has held an annual conference on alternative energy to inform business leaders and government policymakers of current research. About 150 people attended this year’s conference, which focused on strengthening communication between research and industry so that all parties operate from common ground.
“Mississippi is blessed with timber, diverse sources of electricity from coal and natural gas, and pipelines for distribution of natural gas and carbon dioxide,” Batchelor said. “We are one of the few states that has increased its oil production, and that increase was possible because of the carbon dioxide pipeline to our oil fields. The infrastructure is already in place for the state to be a dominant player in renewable energy.”
MSU researchers have focused on alternative energy for more than 10 years, and it has taken about that long for the general public to take notice. Higher gasoline and utility prices have caused many Mississippians to rethink their positions on alternative energy.
MSU’s researchers welcome the public’s interest. Farmers, small business operators, investors, teachers, landowners or managers may provide resources for sustainable energy production or benefit from it.
“This conference is a fact-finding mission for us because many industries are interested in alternative energy strategies or already use some form of alternative energy, and they have questions that may be answered through interaction,” said conference director Rafael Hernandez, MSU associate professor of chemical engineering.
MSU’s team highlighted several areas of research into biofuel production, including bio-oil, biocrude, lignocellulosic conversion, syngas-to-gasoline and biomass combustion.
Bio-oil is produced when a thermal technique decomposes wood and condenses the resulting vapor into a dark brown fluid. Bio-oil can be upgraded and blended with conventional gasoline and diesel or turned into green versions of these fuels. Bio-oil production could generate small rural processing businesses and create new markets for pulpwood and wood waste.
Biocrude is produced from microorganisms breaking down biomass and wastewater. It can be used to make high-value chemicals and biofuels. Biocrude creation could transform existing wastewater treatment plants into biocrude production sites and profit centers.
Lignocellulosic conversion uses microorganisms to break down biomass to obtain plant sugars and convert the sugars into oil for biofuel. The entire sugar content of plants is used in this method, and the process is cost effective.
Syngas-to-gasoline is created by applying heat and steam to wood, forest waste and other biomass to create “synthesis” gas, a gas mixture that contains varying amounts of carbon monoxide and hydrogen. The syngas can then be converted to liquid hydrocarbons, treated with catalysts and processed into gasoline, methanol and other biofuels.
Biomass combustion incorporates a strategy to use trees, plants and waste products efficiently as part of the research effort to create biofuel and bio-oil. Researchers have developed a new application for biofuels by creating a sustainable building with no connection to a power grid.
Although MSU researchers are developing new technologies and products, the cost of this new energy ultimately determines its success.
“Consumers will get excited about biofuels and sustainable energy if the price is no more expensive than conventional fuel,” Hernandez said. “They will be resistant to higher costs for energy, and we must make sure that research and industry work together in developing alternative energy and targeting the price that consumers are willing to accept.”