Campus News

UGA shows off bioenergy work at national alternative fuel demonstration

From bicycle-powered light bulbs to algae bubbling in plastic bags, a field at the National Arboretum in Washington, D.C., was transformed into an alternative fuel demonstration site June 18. Almost 30 universities set up scaled sizes of their biofuels research under a circus-size tent in preparation for the second annual BioEnergy Awareness Days.

The three-day event kicked off June 19 at both the Whitten Federal Building of the U.S. Department of Agriculture and at the National Arboretum about five miles away. Close to 80 exhibitors were featured.

UGA is among 13 winners of the Grand Challenge, an honor that allowed them to exhibit at both locations for two days. The honor recognizes universities for their leadership roles in renewable energy research, teaching and outreach and for their collaborations with other institutions.

“The Grand Challenge was looking and challenging universities to work with other universities, industries and institutions to develop a vision on how to meet the energy concern in the next few years,” said Gale Buchanan, under secretary for research, education and economics at the USDA and former dean of UGA’s College of Agricultural and Environmental Sciences.

The challenge was sponsored by the USDA and the 25x’25 Alliance, a coalition of leaders from agricultural, forestry and renewable energy communities. They are committed to providing 25 percent of the nation’s energy from farms and forests by 2025.

The exhibit dates were chosen for their proximity to the summer solstice on June 21, the longest day of the year.

After hauling algae, chicken fat, wood pellets, a remote-controlled tractor and sugar cane through Georgia, the Carolinas, Virginia, D.C. and Maryland, a crew from UGA’s Athens and Tifton campuses settled in at the National Arboretum for three days of questions, cameras, collaboration and a few questioning remarks from the public such as “Chicken fat? Really?”

Algae research conducted in CAES is still in the growing stages. K.C. Das, an associate professor and director of UGA’s Biorefining and Carbon Cycling Program, estimates algae will be commercially viable in about five years. Algae have the potential for producing 5,000 gallons of oil per acre annually. In comparison, soybeans produce 48 gallons an acre. Corn falls at 18 gallons an acre.

Much of the research UGA displayed is already being put to use commercially. In north Georgia, chicken fat is manufactured as biodiesel. Pellets made from both peanut hulls and Georgia’s timber scraps are being burned for fuel.

Tifton’s remote-controlled sipping tractor works to keep crops growing. It runs on both ethanol and solar power, and earns its name by sipping just enough fuel to keep going. And sugar or “power” cane is just one of many plants UGA researchers are putting through the grind in search of better biomass.

Back at home, more than 80 researchers and economists are working on basic and applied biofuels research, collaborating through UGA’s Biofuels, Biopower and Biomaterials Initiative (B3I). From rotten fruit to cotton stalks, they’re searching for the second generation of biofuels, ones that will produce energy without eating up valuable food crops.