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University researchers take a fresh look at clean energy

Michigan Memorial Phoenix Energy Institute Laboratory, University of Michigan
Michigan Memorial Phoenix Energy Institute Laboratory, University of Michigan

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Universities across the state are making strides in clean energy, or renewable energy technology and sources that don't deplete natural resources or harm the environment. The URC partner institutions are no exception, as researchers at Michigan State University, the University of Michigan, and Wayne State University all have studies underway, ranging from increasing the efficiency of batteries to creating offshore wind farms to using plant products to power vehicles.

"The state of Michigan is very well positioned from the university research side," says Doug Gage, director of MSU's Bioeconomy Network. "Our agricultural base gives us a leading position and an opportunity to become important players in the sector, and I'm confident in the role our state can play."

Much of MSU's research focuses on the area of bioeconomy, which is the conversion of biomass to usable materials such as fuels, chemicals and energy. The university was recently awarded $2.9 million from the U.S. Department of Agriculture, which it will split among three biofuel research initiatives.

One initiative seeks to determine the benefits and sustainability of woody biomass material and how it affects soil loss and greenhouse gas emissions. Another will focus on the pests that affect the grasses used in bioenergy production, while a third will center on creating a process to convert glycerol, a biodiesel production byproduct, into succinate, a substance that can be used in plastics, drugs and food additives.

MSU researchers also work with the University of Wisconsin-Madison and nine other universities and organizations as part of the Great Lakes Bioenergy Research Center (GLBRC), a $142 million center funded by the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE). GLBRC researchers are discovering approaches to convert products like agricultural residues, wood chips and nonfood grasses into biofuels beyond just corn ethanol.

"We're developing the next generation of biofuels, which are derived from cellulosic feed stocks rather than food products," says Gage. "This really brings MSU's traditional strengths in plant sciences, molecular biology, agriculture and agronomy together."

Over in Ann Arbor, the Michigan Memorial Phoenix Energy Institute is also dedicated to clean energy research. In April, the institute and several other UM research organizations partnered with the DOE to host a two-day conference that focused on revitalizing innovation in clean energy manufacturing throughout the state.

UM is also spearheading a five-year research initiative to advance technologies for clean energy vehicles in the United States and China. The $25 million program, developed under the U.S.-China Clean Energy Research Center, includes members from several other universities, laboratories, research institutes, GM, Ford, Toyota and Chrysler, among others.

"We are undertaking research to greatly improve the efficiency of vehicles, and determining how we can shift energy sources from petroleum to electric," says Dr. Dennis Assanis, director, Michigan Memorial Phoenix Institute at the University of Michigan.

The university is also in the midst of a three-year, $2.7 million study to analyze the feasibility of offshore wind energy harvesting in the Great Lakes, in partnership with Grand Valley State University's Michigan Alternative and Renewable Energy Center. As just a tenth of Lake Michigan's wind power potential is equivalent to 20 nuclear power plants, applications could dramatically affect the way electricity is generated.

By placing a large research platform buoy in various locations throughout the lakes, researchers can measure wind up to 150 meters above the surface, while also studying the effects of wind and icing on the buoy and environmental issues related to site placement.

"The hope is that this could enable the creation of a domestic industry of manufacturing, generating jobs in Michigan in offshore wind," says Assanis. "It requires manufacturing, engineering and renewable energy expertise, and it's synergistic with the talents found throughout the state."    

In an example that shows how research is moving from research laboratories to real world applications, UM was awarded $2 million for five sustainable transportation projects, in an international collaboration with Germany's Fraunhofer research center. The studies are primarily concerned with how various types of batteries can be made more efficiently, in order to spur the mass production of electric vehicles.

While UM has a masters in energy systems engineering program, Wayne State University recently partnered with Macomb Community College and NextEnergy to create electric drive vehicle engineering degree programs, funded by a $5 million DOE grant. The program will include a master's degree in electric drive vehicle engineering, a bachelor's degree in electric transportation technology, an associate degree in automotive technology, an associate degree in electronic engineering technology, and both an undergraduate concentration and graduate certificate program in electric drive vehicle engineering.

Current research at WSU focuses on addressing the challenges of widespread biodiesel use, including establishing quality standards, fuel stability and performance properties.  The goal is to use research findings to develop new technologies to increase acceptance and use of biodiesel, which would lead to increased energy security and reduced green house gas emissions.

"From developing microalgae to testing biofuels in diesel engines, we're involved in biofuels from start to finish," says Simon Ng, professor of chemical engineering and the interim associate dean of research for the College of Engineering at Wayne State University.

WSU has traditionally specialized in biodiesel and ethanol production research, but has also recently moved into battery materials. Ng says that with the next generation of batteries, research has indicated that the energy density could be increased tenfold which would make electric vehicles that much more effective.

"The key is need to move away from dependence on petroleum," says Ng. "By looking into renewable and sustainable materials, we can cut down on our dependence on foreign oil."

MSU's Gage agrees with Ng, and says that not only is clean energy research valuable for preserving the environment, but it also has economic and national security implications.

"It's really critical that we make these investments now so we can understand the problems and develop systems to deal with them," says Gage. "It's not going to happen overnight, but we're all working diligently to make progress and bring it to reality as soon as possible."

Photos: Michigan Memorial Phoenix Energy Institute laboratories, University of Michigan
All photos by Doug Coombe

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