Bioenergy

MSU Revs Up Efforts to Get Biofuels in Gas Tanks

Research to couple powerful new biofuels with efficient automotive engines got a spark last week from the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE). Two teams of engineers from Michigan State University (MSU) — chemical and mechanical — have been selected to negotiate for $4.7 million in grants to create new fuels from renewable resources as well as engines that can take full advantage of those next generation fuels.

The university has been selected to negotiate for $2.4 million from the DOE to partner with Ford Motor Co. for a project to develop advanced, low-temperature combustion designs for diesel engines using biofuel blends optimized for engine performance. MSU is the only university to be selected as a lead in the project in this round of $21.5 million worth of award opportunities.

MSU engineers also are involved in another project with Visteon Corp., which has been selected for negotiation of an award of $2.3 million to achieve gasoline-like fuel economy when using E-85 by minimizing thermal, dynamic, volumetric and other system efficiency losses. Other partners will be the DOE’s Argonne National Laboratory and Mahle Powertrain.

According to Dennis Miller, MSU professor of chemical engineering and materials science, who is leading MSU’s partnership with Ford, teaming up the chemical and mechanical sides of engineering can ward off some of the current problems with biofuels.

“We’re using an integrated approach, which hasn’t really been done before,” said Miller. “These new biofuels will be more sophisticated than ethanol and biodiesel. By designing the engines at the same time, we believe we can optimize efficiency, performance, and environmental benefits.”

The chemical engineering team is Miller; Kris Berglund, University Distinguished Professor of chemical engineering and forestry; Ramani Narayan, University Distinguished Professor of chemical and biochemical engineering; and Carl Lira, associate professor of chemical engineering and materials science.

Together they’ll work on refining fuels from renewable resources such as soybean and other plant oils and woody stems and stalks from trees and other plants. A significant part of the biofuel work builds on earlier biofuel and fermentation work by Miller, Lira, Berglund and Narayan.

Much of the new work will take place at the MSU Biorefinery Training Facility at the Michigan Brewing Co. in Webberville, a state-of-the-art facility for refining a variety of biofuels, biochemicals and other bioproducts.

As the chemical engineering team designs these fuels, mechanical engineers, along with Ford, will be testing the fuels and working to create engines that can maximize the fuel performance, said Harold Schock, professor of mechanical engineering.

Schock describes the biofuels as an automotive revolution and the engine modifications as evolution.

“A lot of the details of how engines perform can have a serious influence on the improvement in efficiency,” Schock said. “Designing the engines to accommodate new fuels and new fuel properties can make a tremendous impact. It can make a 20 to 50 percent difference in the way an engine operates.”

Schock leads the engineering team, joined by associate professor Farhad Jaberi and assistant professor Tonghun Lee. Schock also is working on the Visteon project.

“Our approach should lead to much broader use of biofuels as we identify superior fuel blends, and as we begin to produce engines that are more compatible with the biofuels,” Miller said.

The DOE will award a total of up to $21.5 million for eleven cost-shared research and development projects that aim to improve the fuel efficiency of light-duty vehicle engines.

This announcement comes on the heels of MSU receiving a $50 million DOE grant to partner with the University of Wisconsin-Madison to establish the Great Lakes Bioenergy Research Center for basic science research aimed at solving some of the most complex problems in converting natural materials to energy.

“This is a wonderful project that underscores MSU’s strengths in the whole biofuel system—from production and formulation to testing and eventual use as transportation fuels,” said Steve Pueppke, director of the MSU Office of Biobased Technologies. “We’re especially proud to be conducting the work in partnership with Ford Motor Co., a Michigan corporation.”

The research of Miller, Lira, and Berglund is also supported by the Michigan Agricultural Experiment Station at MSU.