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An initiative launched by the General Assembly and led by Old Dominion University will seek renewable energy solutions that could be put to use in Virginia.

Legislators set aside $1.5 million in funding earlier this year and established the Virginia Coastal Energy Research Consortium (VCERC) to study alternative fuels and new means of energy production.

ODU researchers will focus on two of the half-dozen VCERC development areas-feasibility of production of biodiesel fuel from algae and feasibility of electricity generation by wind turbines in coastal Virginia.

In addition to ODU, members of the consortium are Virginia Tech's Advanced Research Institute, 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.

Patrick G. Hatcher, Batten Endowed Chair in Physical Sciences and director of ODU's College of Sciences Major Instrumentation Cluster (COSMIC), was selected as the first executive director of VCERC.

At a consortium board of directors meeting May 18 in Richmond, major decisions will be made about projects and funding.

One of the more interesting avenues proposed for algae research would be a collaboration between ODU scientists and engineers together with personnel of the Virginia Initiative Plant (VIP), a Hampton Roads Sanitation District wastewater treatment facility located near the ODU campus.

Researchers propose to use VIP as a testing ground for a possible "win-win" process in which algal growth accomplishes wastewater remediation while also producing biomass for biodiesel production. Plans call for a bioreactor pool at VIP to be dedicated to tests of how effluent will promote algae cultivation. The algae actually clean nutrients from effluent while also contributing to a renewable energy source. Numerous tests related to light levels, nutrient supplies of the effluent and aeration must be done to assess the feasibility of the process.

A production pool and smaller scale culture systems will be set up on the ODU campus to test the productivity and usefulness of various species of algae grown under a variety of conditions. Yet another path of the research will include tests on natural assemblages of algae in the waters of coastal Virginia.

ODU researchers also will develop a conversion reactor that makes algal biomass into biodiesel. These reactors simulate forces in nature that over millions of years convert algae and other vegetation into underground deposits of oil and other fossil fuels.

"This initiative is but a small step in the direction of energy independence," said Delegate Phillip Hamilton of Newport News, who helped lead the legislative effort that established the consortium. State Sen. Frank Wagner and Delegate Leo Wardrup Jr. of Virginia Beach and State Sen. Edward Houck of Spotsylvania County also were key supporters.

Hamilton said in a media release that he believed the institutions involved in the consortium "can make Virginia a leader" in renewable energy research and development. "It is critical that this nation aggressively seek alternative energy sources to reduce our dependence on foreign oil," he added.

A 40-page ODU publication titled "Energy for Tomorrow" has been produced under the direction of Hatcher and Aron Stubbins, assistant research professor of chemistry and biochemistry, to identify 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.

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.

This article was posted on: May 14, 2007

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