By Stephanie Collins
Eastern’s biofuels department will receive additional funding from the federal government – in the form of $2.4 million. Officials announced at the 2010 BioEnergy Field Day that the U.S. Defense Logistics Agency is granting a second round of funding to the department.Eastern’s Center for Renewable and Alternative Fuel Technologies, also known as CRAFT, is in partnership with General Atomics of San Diego. It began in 2008 with an initial funding of $3.7 million.
CRAFT’s mission is to create a local fuel economy by converting biomass, such as crop-grown switchgrass, into usable transportation fuels, Program Director Bruce Pratt said. This is done by digesting sugars from biomass and feeding it to specialized algae, he said. The result is the production of oil that can be converted into biodiesel and JP-8 jet fuel.
By developing a local, commercial-based bio-fuel, national security increases and the reliance on imported fuel is decreased.
Biofuel is a small aspect in a wide range of alternative energy, Pratt said. Different regions around the country have local resources that can aid in the research of bioenergy, such as the extensive sunlight in Arizona or the tides in Maine. Eastern Kentucky’s region is a great candidate for bio-fuel production due to a moderate climate, rainfall and the ability to grow biomass.
“It’s a very complex project,” Pratt said. “The funding has given our faculty the ability to increase research capacity, upgrade equipment and build a modest research building dedicated to CRAFT.”
Federal funding has also had an impact on incorporating student involvement in CRAFT. There have been a large number of students who have assisted in the research, along with two classes so far that are associated with the program. There has also been an increase in the number of graduate students working toward a degree in chemistry.
Students involved in the projects and research of CRAFT are introduced to unique ways of creating alternative fuels in our current economy through a number of studies, such as the conversion of biomass to energy. This project will aim to convert many available sources of biomass in Kentucky, such as corn stover, into sugars to be fed to algae for oil production.
Fuels are commonly made out of squeezing the oils out of foods, such as soybeans, Pratt said. CRAFT’s projects focus on utilizing the algae as a way of preserving food products for other uses, such as soybeans for margarine or cooking oil.
CRAFT is looking at other ways of producing alternative oil with future funding, he said. One of these was demonstrated at the field day when the dissolving of plastics into 100-percent biodiesel was poured into a motorcycle and then driven around the farm.
Pratt said he believes the research going on at Eastern shows a promising future for biofuels research in Kentucky.
“We are a teaching institution, not a Tier One research facility,” he said. “However, I don’t think we get the recognition we should. I’m hoping publicity around this project will attract students as much as possible so we can prepare them for their futures.
“I’m excited for the future of alternative fuel research in Kentucky, and also for EKU’s involvement in a cutting edge technology.