A Win-Win Renewable Energy Plan
ODU Scientists and Engineers are Leaders in Virginia’s Efforts to Create New Sources of Energy While Also Cleaning Up the Environment
By Jim Raper
Can wastewater reduce America’s precarious dependence upon fossil fuel? “We want to find out,” says Old Dominion University geochemist Patrick Hatcher.
Wastewater serves as the growth medium for algae in an ambitious new project of ODU and the Virginia Initiative Plant (VIP), a regional treatment facility at the southwest edge of the campus. Hatcher leads the group of researchers who have installed an experimental station atop the VIP and are hoping to show that biodiesel fuel made from algae can be commercially viable. This algae farming also has a beneficial side effect: it cleans potentially harmful nutrients from the wastewater.
The researchers will pump effluent at the VIP into Plexiglas algae growth chambers, and the oily biomass will be harvested and converted via a proprietary process into biodiesel fuel. “We know we can produce the biodiesel oil,” explains Hatcher. “The question is, can we produce it at a practical cost?” He expects the researchers to spend most of 2008 trying to prove that they can.
The biodiesel pilot project is an initiative of the new Virginia Coastal Energy Research Consortium (VCERC), which was funded with $1.5 million and headquartered at ODU by the 2007 General Assembly. Hatcher, who is the university’s Frank Batten Endowed Chair in Physical Sciences, is executive director of the consortium. He has earned an international reputation for chemical analysis of natural organic matter, and one of his areas of expertise involves the organic compounds and geological processes that create fossil fuels. (See Quest, Vol. 9, Issue 2, Fall 2006.)
Hatcher and ODU’s College of Sciences Major Instrumentation Cluster (COSMIC), which he directs, will perform molecular studies on algae to better understand their potential for conversion to biodiesel fuel.
Altogether, about 15 ODU scientists and engineers are involved in the first slate of VCERC projects. They are focusing not only on biodiesel fuel production, but also on studies to determine the feasibility of wind turbine electricity generation off the Virginia coast. In addition to ODU, members of the consortium are Virginia Tech’s Advanced Research Institute, the College of William and Mary’s Virginia Institute of Marine Science, Norfolk State University, Hampton University, James Madison University, Virginia Commonwealth University and University of Virginia.
Prototype to Make 200 Gallons a Day
Hatcher is working on the algae-to-biodiesel project with an ODU team that also includes Margaret Mulholland, associate professor of ocean, earth and atmospheric sciences; Andrew Gordon, professor of biological sciences; Harold Marshall, Morgan Professor emeritus and eminent scholar emeritus of biological sciences; Aron Stubbins, research assistant professor of chemistry and biochemistry; and Gary Schafran, professor and chair of civil and environmental engineering. With the experimental alga farming station on the sun-drenched roof of VIP, the ODU researchers believe they can produce enough algae to net about 200 gallons of biodiesel fuel a day. A first task for Mulholland, Marshall and Gordon is to determine what species of algae will be most productive and oil-rich. To other team members falls the task of developing efficient technologies to harvest and transport the algae and convert it to biodiesel fuel at a reasonable cost.
ODU researchers have designed a test reactor that converts algae directly into biodiesel fuel without any intermediate step. The particulars of the system are secret, according to Hatcher, who hopes the procedure can be patented. But he does provide a general idea of how slimy algae can be transformed in less than an hour into a fuel that could power a tractor. “All of the oil in the world came from algae that settled out and was compressed over time, eventually becoming crude oil,” he says. “Likewise all of our coal was once land plants that were similarly pressured over millions of years. If nature does it, why can’t we grow algae and turn it into diesel fuel?” In other words, ODU’s proprietary process is one heck of a shortcut when compared to forces in nature that take millions of years to compress and convert the remains of algae and other vegetation into underground deposits of fossil fuels.
Already, the ODU researchers have shown that their process works, at least on a small scale. Vials of the fuel were presented in September to Virginia officials including Gov. Tim Kaine and Secretary of Natural Resources Preston Bryant, and to U.S. Rep. Thelma Drake, 2nd District of Virginia.
Proprietary Reactor is a Cost Saver
There have been algae-to-biodiesel projects in years past. But those early tries bogged down for several reasons, such as the expensive initial investment inas Hatcher calls them“the pumps, pipes, tanks and such” of the algae production and conversion processes. “But sewage treatment facilities already have much of this infrastructure and working with them could be a real plus,” he adds. Other hurdles in the past sprang from the biological and technological difficulties in large-scale production and harvesting of algae with reliably high oil content. Hatcher is trying to perfect a test that would quickly and easily guarantee that each batch of algae headed for a reactor has adequate biodiesel potential. The ODU team also is counting on its proprietary reactor scheme, which is streamlined and theoretically very cost-effective, to give them a design advantage.
Other efficiencies are expected from the Biodiesel Engine Laboratory that has been set up by ODU engineers. Robert Ash, associate vice president for research and professor and eminent scholar of aerospace engineering, leads the group, which is studying biodiesel combustion in order to wring performance gains from engines and fuel. Holding up a 1-ounce bottle of the precious first biodiesel fuel produced under the VCERC project, Hatcher noted its resemblance to crude oil. “The oil right out of the ground requires refining to produce diesel and other fuels, and we may find that our product requires some refining, too, before it could be sold commercially.”
Hatcher believes that any algae-to-biodiesel process that comes from VCERC probably can be successful in the marketplace even if it does not produce fuel that is as cheap as petroleum diesel. “Environmental trade-offs make biodiesel more practical,” he explains.
By that, he means several things. The need for some sort of biofuel to ease Americans’ dependence upon fossil fuels is broadly accepted now, and ethanol has come to be the dominant biofuel in the United States. Ethanol, however, is essentially white lightning made from corn, and, unlike biodiesel fuels, cannot be used full-strength in a standard engine. (A blend of about 10 percent ethanol and 90 percent gasoline is common at filling stations.) Also, corn is a food crop that requires the plowing and fertilizing of many acres of land. Algae farming, on the other hand, is expected to have less environmental impact and the use of the waterborne vegetation for fuel production would not take a bite out of the world’s food supply.
Algal Growth “Treats” Water
According to Mulholland, “The greatest green advantage of biodiesel fuel could come from the partnership between algae farming and wastewater treatment.” As they grow in effluent, algae soak up undesirable nutrients and also take in carbon dioxidethe main greenhouse gas linked to global warming.
Full-scale algae farming at wastewater plants could enable the Hampton Roads Sanitation District (HRSD), which operates the VIP, to discharge water into local waters that is cleaner than regulations today require. To encourage overachieving such as this, the government allows entities such as HRSD to bank unused creditsalso called discharge entitlements. These credits have a financial value because they can be traded or sold. So bottom-line costs for biodiesel production could be lowered if the production process helped a treatment facility to save discharge credits.
“HRSD is on the front line of protecting the environment, so this project is very exciting to us,” said Norman LeBlanc, director of water quality for the sanitation district. “Cost-effective nutrient removal obviously is advantageous.” But he also was quick to point out other advantages, such as the possibility that carbon dioxide from a VIP incinerator could be diverted to spur growth of the algae. “If we can remove nutrients, coupled with cutting carbon dioxide emissions into the atmosphere, while we also decrease our treatment costs and help to produce an environmentally friendly biodiesel fuel, this would be a very good outcome.”
LeBlanc said any discharge credits that could be banked by HRSD would be an added bonus. As one example of their value, he said that the banked credits could be sold or transferred to new industries that otherwise might be unable to locate in Hampton Roads. (Regulatory caps for certain discharges can keep out a new industry if a cap has been reached in a particular region and no credits are available.)
Scientists and Engineers Study Wind Energy Potential
The work at ODU on the wind turbine feasibility study is led by Larry Atkinson, who holds the Samuel L. and Fay M. Slover Professorship in Oceanography and is an eminent professor of ocean, earth and atmospheric sciences; Shirshak Dhali, professor and department chair in electrical and computer engineering; and David Basco, professor of civil engineering and director of ODU’s Coastal Engineering Center.
George Hagerman, a Virginia Tech scientist, heads the VCERC’s wind-energy investigations. He told The Virginian-Pilot in June 2007 that coastal Virginia has strong and consistent winds to support wind energy and that the researchers were considering a site for a wind turbine farm that was 15 miles offshore just above the North Carolina line.
ODU researchers on the wind turbine project are looking into factors such as wind force, ocean circulation patterns, weather and electricity transmission technologies. “We are gathering information to help state and federal governments assess the potential benefits and risks,” Atkinson said. “And this information also could be used for industry to optimize design of the turbines.”
VCERC got off the ground thanks to the efforts of state legislators such as Sen. Frank Wagner of Virginia Beach, Delegate Phillip Hamilton of Newport News, Delegate Leo Wardrup Jr. of Virginia Beach and Sen. Edward Houck of Spotsylvania County. Hamilton calls the initiative “a small step in the direction of energy independence.”
Sen. Wagner Leads the Way
Stephen Walz, division of administration director for the Virginia Department of Mines, Minerals and Energy, said VCERC is fortunate to have Wagner leading the way. “His tireless efforts, as supported by Sen. Houck and Delegate Hamilton, are responsible for not only the creation of VCERC, but also its funding and early successes,” Walz said of Wagner. “Even more impressive is his passion for the topic. He is convinced and committed to developing and utilizing these alternative fuel sources in Virginia and around the world.”
Roseann Runte, ODU’s president, says of the biodiesel project: “This would truly be a win-win solution: we could create healthier waters while producing an environmentally friendly fuel.” As for the overall project, she adds, “Our university is excited about investing our expertise in the work of the Virginia Coastal Energy Research Consortium, and we are proud that the General Assembly asked us to be the host school for the consortium.”
VCERC is part of the overall Virginia Energy Plan that the General Assembly adopted in 2006. For more information about VCERC, visit www.vcerc.org.
Booklet Showcases ODU Energy Expertise
A 40-page ODU publication titled “Energy for Tomorrow” identifies energy-related faculty expertise and research projects. Seventeen faculty members are highlighted as experts in fields related to algae and biodiesel. Another 14 are featured as researchers who can contribute to studies associated with wind-generation of electricity.
Altogether, 55 members of the ODU faculty are identified in the publication as having expertise in energy resources, energy production, energy policies and environmental issues related to energy.
To obtain a copy of the booklet, contact Aron Stubbins, assistant research professor of chemistry and biochemistry, at email@example.com.
ODU RESEARCHERS WITH VCERC ROLES
Patrick Hatcher, Batten Endowed Professor in Physical Sciences, professor of chemistry and biochemistry and professor of ocean, earth and atmospheric sciences, is executive director of the Virginia Coastal Energy Research Consortium and a leader of its algae-to-biodiesel pilot project. (Postdoctoral researcher Zhanfei Liu and technician E. Adair Johnson are working with Hatcher.)
Margaret Mulholland, associate professor of ocean, earth and atmospheric sciences, is assessing the value of wastewater effluents as sources of nutrients to spur algal growth. (Postdoctoral researcher Chris Burbage is working with Mulholland.)
Gary Schafran, professor and department chair in civil and environmental engineering, is leading the design/production work on the algal growth chambers and harvesting equipment in the biodiesel pilot project.
Harold Marshall, Morgan Professor emeritus and eminent scholar emeritus of biological sciences, is evaluating the biomass potential of algae growing under natural conditions in regional waters.
Andrew Gordon, professor of biological sciences, is researching the biodiesel-fuel potential of natural and laboratory-cultured algae.
Aron Stubbins, assistant research professor of chemistry and biochemistry, is assistant director of VCERC and is involved in the algae-to-biodiesel project.
Han Bao, professor of mechanical engineering, is studying conventional methods of the conversion of biomass and vegetable oils into biodiesel fuel.
Robert Ash, associate vice president for research and professor and eminent scholar of aerospace engineering, is working with the Biodiesel Engine Laboratory.
Taj Mohieldin, professor of engineering and technology, is working with the Biodiesel Engine Laboratory.
Eric Koster, a researcher with the Frank Batten College of Engineering and Technology and the university’s director of motorsports operations, is working with the Biodiesel Engine Laboratory.
Larry Atkinson, the Samuel L. and Fay M. Slover Professor of Oceanography, is involved in the coastal Virginia wind-turbine feasibility study, with specific interest in wind force and other climatology factors.
David Basco, professor of civil engineering and director of the ODU Coastal Engineering Center, is involved in the coastal Virginia wind-turbine feasibility study, with specific interest in the foundations for windmills installed at sea.
Shirshak Dhali, professor and department chair of electrical and computer engineering, is involved in the coastal Virginia wind-turbine feasibility study, with specific interest in transmission of electricity from offshore wind farms to mainland electricity users.
Jose Blanco, a research scientist with ODU’s Center for Coastal Physical Oceanography, is involved in the coastal Virginia wind-turbine feasibility study, with specific interest in physical processes in the coastal waters of the mid-Atlantic states.