by Caroline Erickson, University of Michigan journalism student
In each well-lit tank lining the walls of his lab grows a special combination of algae species that University of Michigan professor Bradley Cardinale hopes might be the future of biofuel. The blue-green aquariums bubble and hum, tucked in the basement lab of the University of Michigan’s Dana Building. The lab smells of the earthy algae and chlorinated water used to prepare tanks for work.
Labs like this are cropping up nationwide as the issues of global climate change and shrinking fossil fuel resources become urgent. Proponents of biofuels believe Michigan may be a prime setting for this energy revolution, because of its many research institutions and strong agricultural industry. Michigan stands to benefit from the research and business of making biofuel a reality, according to Bruce Dale, a professor and researcher at Michigan State University’s Department of Chemical Engineering and Material Sciences.
“Increased production of biofuels means our agriculture sector will do better, particularly in areas of the state that can grow a lot of grass but aren’t such great corn producing places,” says Dale. “There will also be increased jobs in certain sectors of the auto industry and the research sector.”
Ethanol, from corn or cane sugar, and biodiesel, from animal or vegetable fat, are alternatives to the petroleum-based fossil fuels produced today. Fossil fuels come from ancient plant and animal deposits compressed under heat and pressure for millions of years. Not only is fossil fuel formation a lengthy process but burning fossil fuels is currently producing 9.5 billion tons of carbon dioxide each year, according to the Intergovernmental Panel for Climate Change. That’s 54% higher than emission rates in 1990. Carbon dioxide is a primary driver in climate change and contributes to the melting ice caps, rising sea levels, and ocean acidification.
In 2013, laboratories at Michigan State University and University of Michigan have been awarded grants of $2.9-million and -$2-million dollars by the United States Department of Agriculture and the National Science Foundation, respectively, to investigate biofuels. As the source of fossil fuels shrinks, and extracting them becomes more expensive and environmentally dangerous, these types of research grants are increasing for universities around the country.
In 2010, this trend began with the announcement that the Department of Energy planned to direct $800 million toward advancing biofuel research at universities around the country, to develop a cleaner transportation sector. The expansion of renewable fuels have reduced our reliance on foreign oil, according to report by the Department of Energy. When funds spent on foreign oil are used domestically, it helps stimulate the economy and create jobs.
Dale and Cardinale run labs that are exploring efficient, affordable, and low-carbon emission substitutes to fossil fuels. They believe that an increase in biofuel production and consumption could benefit the environment and Michigan’s economy. “Increased biofuel use will hold down oil prices and reduce pollution caused by oil,” says Dale, in reference to fossil fuels environmentally risky extraction, transportation, and combustion.
Michigan State University’s bioprocessing lab is researching how algae, soybeans, and corn can produce valuable oils that could be used as a liquid fuel. These fuels would have smaller carbon footprints than conventional fuel by sourcing renewable crops and burning more cleanly. Cardinale’s lab at the University of Michigan is working to discover a new mix of algae species that can make tissues for conversion to efficient, productive fuel. “Algae creates many tissues that are combustible,” says Cardinale, “there are the oils, or lipids, but you can also combust proteins and polysaccharides.” In collaboration with chemical engineers at the University of Michigan, his lab is working to process algal tissues in a way that can extract more than just the lipids, using more tissues and creating less waste.
“Support [for biofuels] comes from a wide variety of sources,” says Dale, in reference the thinkers and activists that promote biofuel. People interested in energy security, sustainable agriculture, and rural development are among some of the proponents of this research. As fossil fuel supplies shrink and concerns over global climate change intensify, more national organizations are directing funds toward researching alternatives.
However, on November 15, 2013, the Environmental Protection Agency proposed scaling back the required percentage of ethanol in the gasoline mix in the United States. Domestic oil production increased unexpectedly, and ethanol was in surplus, making it unpopular and economically invaluable. “Gas consumption has decreased, so we have to mix more and more ethanol into less gasoline,” says Eric Wohlschlegel, Director of the American Petroleum Institute “Ethanol itself is not dangerous, but the mandated levels are dangerous.”
Charles Griffith, the Climate & Energy Program Director at The Ecology Center in Ann Arbor, Michigan observes “There has been very low demand for 85% ethanol because it requires vehicles built specifically with systems that can handle increased alcohol content. The pricing is also not that beneficial for consumer and that has led to lower demand.”
So despite the increase in funding for biofuel research, it seems the consumers nationwide are not taking the new fuel as eagerly as expected. “Consumers want ethanol free gasoline,” says Wohlschlegel, “Ethanol is more corrosive that gasoline and gives you lower gas mileage than gasoline.”
“I might change one of my family cars to a biofuel vehicle,” says Terry Madden, an avid boater from the Grand Rapids, Michigan “but I still need a car that can pull a trailer and a boat, so that car wouldn’t be alternative fuel.” Such hesitance is common among consumers, who are concerned about the cost and performance of new fuels and their accompanying vehicles.
Dale discredits the doubts consumers have about the performance of biofuel engines and biofuel. “The timing of the future of biofuel depends almost entirely on policy, not on technical matters,” he says. “In other words, we will choose how rapidly we have biofuels.” His research is aimed at unveiling the issues of unsustainable, non-renewable fuels, and the benefits of biofuels, so that society can make the choice to adopt alternative fuel more quickly.
“In 2013, there have been some significant accomplishments leading toward establishing a fully commercialized, robust, domestically sourced bioindustry,” states to the Department of Energy report. But Griffith cautions that research funding and studies are not without bias. “Some [research] is more aligned with the biofuel industry, some with big oil, and other is independent,” he says, “We need to make sure that all of this research is done responsibly.”