Young biodiesel researchers shine in San Diego

Eight university student researchers presented their impressive biodiesel-related work during a breakout panel at the 2014 National Biodiesel Conference & Expo in San Diego
By Ron Kotrba | January 29, 2014

Last week in San Diego at the 2014 National Biodiesel Conference & Expo, I had the pleasure to attend a breakout panel called “The Next Generation of Biodiesel Research,” which featured short—but very impressive—presentations from eight university students from around the country. Scott Fenwick, the technical director for the National Biodiesel Board, got it right when he said the passion and knowledge these next-generation scientists bring to the table is infectious. If the future of biodiesel can be forecast through these young researchers’ work, then I can say without a doubt this industry’s future looks very bright.

University of Cincinnati students Qingshi Tu, a doctoral student in Environmental Engineering, and Ron Gillespie, an undergraduate student studying industrial management, presented their research on brown grease biodiesel. They are founders of a student-led startup, Effuelent, working to produce biodiesel feedstock from fats, oils and greases found in the municipal wastewater system. Tu detailed a lifecycle analysis of energy consumption for trap grease to biodiesel.

Dartmouth student Morgan Curtis, a co-chair of the Next Generation Scientists for Biodiesel, shared “A Biodiesel Journey” with the audience, a presentation on how she found community in the biodiesel world. She uses a beer bong to dispense biodiesel into her biodiesel-bumper-sticker-laden diesel. “When you pull up with all these bumper stickers on your car, you make friends instantly and realize that you’re part of something bigger than yourself,” she said. Curtis switched directions, declared a new major, and reached out to White Mountain Biodiesel in New Hampshire. Her dad in the U.K. even caught her biodiesel bug. As she tells it, he quit his job and bought a biodiesel refinery, much to her surprise. She spent a great deal of time in one of her classes being asked to criticize projects in the global south, and then was asked to come up with her own solution. She won a competition for her research work on turning street vendor grease to biodiesel to run buses. Curtis said what she has learned in her hands-on approach to sustainability is that there are real solutions to the world’s problems, and she also has learned the importance of community.

Utah State University student Michael Morgan gave an impressive presentation on his team’s work testing emissions characteristics from three different microbial biodiesels (algae, bacteria and yeast). He said they spent 18 months just getting the dynamometer set up. Morgan said the algae biodiesel had improved NOx emissions compared to the other tested fuels. He detailed how he and his USU teammates built a racecar for $7,000 and broke a record on the Bonneville Salt Flats, reaching 64.396 mph on yeast biodiesel. “The exhaust smelled like bread,” Morgan said. Future work for Morgan and the USU microbial products team include coproduct development and low-temperature hydroliquefaction.

Dan Browne with Texas A&M, also a co-chair of the NGSB, gave a highly technical presentation on his work with Botryococcus braunii, an algae that secretes hydrocarbons. “These molecules are found in oil deposits around the world,” he said. “An ancestor of this algae was a major contributor to oil formation.” He said the oils secreted from this algae can be processed in a hydrocracking unit like those used in conventional petroleum refineries. Browne is working to mine Botryococcus braunii for biotechnology. “We can directly use it for biofuel but we can also mine its genes for [use in] other organisms.” Browne has been working to gain a systems understanding of hydrocarbon production in this organism.

Derek Pickett, a graduate research assistant at the University of Kansas, discussed his work using glycerin for power production. To use glycerin in a combustion engine, it first has to be converted to syngas. He used a Chevy 350 V8 engine coupled to a generator to conduct his work, which also involved heat recovery expansion efforts.

NGSB co-chair Bernardo del Campo spoke briefly about how he and his fellow teammates enjoy being able to reach out to young kids through programs at Iowa State University to teach children the value and fun of learning about chemistry, and all the other disciplines that go along with biodiesel. “Biodiesel gives you a platform to teach all kinds of chemistry to your students,” he said.

Finally, Karthik Gopalakrishnan of Clemson University presented on heterotrophic batch and fed-batch culture of Chlorella protothecoides using crude glycerol as a carbon substrate.

What wonderful work these student researchers are doing. I was honored to introduce myself to most of them after the session.

Keep up the fantastic research, next-gen biodiesel scientists, and I look forward to following your successes!