A new MSU television ad boasts about the university’s environmental policies by saying, “After all, we’ve been green from the beginning.” While MSU has indeed “bled green” since 1855, the word as applied to environmentalism has really taken meaning in the past few years with university recycling programs and sustainability initiatives. But where MSU perhaps has the most potential to become the strongest hue of green is in research, and nowhere is that research most important these days than finding new ways to lessen our global warming impacts.
Global warming is caused by a release of greenhouse gases into the atmosphere that trap heat. Carbon, one of the most potent of those gases, is emitted daily by the hordes of cars out on the road. Various groups at MSU, from the student racing team to top-notch scientists at a collaborative research center, are researching ways to reduce that amount of carbon released by cars. These projects, both big and small, put MSU on a growing list of institutions that are greening their research to figure out solutions for an environmentally friendly future worldwide.[cars]
The MSU Formula Racing team is a part of that movement. Formula Racing was founded in 1979 as a competition called the “Mini Indy.” Since then, it has become one of the largest racing competitions worldwide. Formula racing brings together students from various universities who have spent hours creating, designing and manufacturing competitive racing cars. MSU’s Formula Racing team is working to reverse the idea that racing is just a waste of gas.
[zemke] “A lot of people see racing as an unnecessary thing in the development of cars, when it’s quite the opposite,” said Adam Zemke, an MSU alumnus who majored in mechanical engineering and is project manager of the MSU Formula Racing team. The team’s goal this year is to convert their carï¿½s fuel system to biofuel by the June 2009 competition. “The option of running biofuel cars has been in the rule book for a few years,” said Zemke. “Our development program has been working on it for a few months now.”
Biofuels are more environmentally friendly fuels because they give off less carbon emissions than standard petroleum. The most popular type of biofuel ï¿½ and the one the race team plans on integrating into its system ï¿½ is ethanol. Ethanol is a corn grain-based mixture that gives off far less emissions than petroleum and that is becoming more widespread because the government has mandated it to be developed for cars. It is a key component in the E85 mixture that some car companies are using for their fuel systems (85 percent ethanol, 15 percent petroleum). “E85 is more sustainable than petroleum; that being one of our bigger goals ï¿½ to produce something that is sustainable,” Zemke said.
The team named its green initiative “Go Clean,” and its central focus is all about sustainability. “It’s an example of how many things can be bio-based,” Zemke said. He also said the team is considering the use of organic fabrics, the reuse of cockpit inserts and more, “all the way down to the paint we use on the car,” he said. “The object of our initiative is to show that you can do the same things ï¿½ maybe better ï¿½ without the detrimental effects to the environment.”
Similarly, an element to sustainability is spending money in a responsible and resourceful manner; something team members are forced to learn quickly. “Everything is funded by our sponsors; they are extremely important,” Zemke said. The team has between 130-150 sponsors, including members of The Big Three. The anticipated cost of this year’s race car, for instance, is a half million dollars.
On a different scale is the funding of a far larger biofuel research project, one that involves not just the pride of MSU in developing ways to “go green,” but also research collaborations between different institutions.
The Great Lakes Bioenergy Research Center (GLBRC) is one of three research centers created and funded by the Department of Energy. The goal of the GLBRC is to find means of energy through both edible products, like corn-based ethanol, and through non-edible products, like ethanol made from grasses, said Ken Keegstra, Scientific Director of the center and MSU professor in the biochemistry and molecular biology department.
It does so through five research “thrusts” that focus on the conversion of organic matter, or biomass, to energy, or bioenergy. These steps include researching everything from the very way a plant produces its matter through the way that matter can be used as energy and finally to the technology needed to get the most productivity out of these processes. “The GLBRC looks primarily at three kinds of fuels: ethanol (from plant cell matter), biodiesel (made from plant oil) and photosynthetic bacteria (that makes hydrogen),” Keegstra said.
[corn]The goal of the research center is to find not only knowledge but also a course of action for the growth, development and ï¿½ most importantly ï¿½ sustainability of the technologies, all while keeping pace with the federal government’s continual goals. “The Energy Independence and Securities Act will require 36 billion gallons [of biofuel] per year by 2022,” said Phil Robertson from the W. K. Kellogg Biological Station, an off-campus research facility for sustainability. Robertson is the leader of the fourth thrust of the GLBRC, which researches the longevity of biofuels.
The act requires that 15 billion of those 36 billion gallons come from corn grain-based ethanol. In 2007, the U.S. produced 6.4 billion gallons of corn grain-based ethanol, which means over twice that amount will be necessary to meet the 2022 standard. The problem with that is that the amount of corn grain-based ethanol produced in 2007 was already about a quarter of the overall U.S. corn yield, Robertson said. “We canï¿½t solely use the corn crop without interfering with what is necessary for food,” he said.
So researchers at the GLBRC are looking at different options. Cellulosic ethanol, made from switch grass, woodchips and corn stalks, is one of those. Ethanol is made from extracting sugars from cellulose molecules, and then combining the sugar in a yeast formula deprived of oxygen. Keegstra said the problem with getting the necessary sugar out of the corn molecules is that these resources have their own protective instincts, preventing easy access. But with cellulosic ethanol, that sugar is easier to obtain, and its net effect is the same as corn-based – it reduces carbon emissions.
Other researchers at MSU are turning away from ethanol to other alternative fuels. Eric Hegg, associate professor in the biochemistry department, focuses his research on using hydrogen as a fuel, given the challenges of making ethanol. However, this option is not without its own challenges. “To make hydrogen chemically is a very energy expensive process,” Keegstra said of the process to use hydrogen as a fuel. He said this would defeat the purpose of using it as a biofuel.
“It’s not that any one of these (options) canï¿½t work, it’s which will be ‘the best,’ the best being the one that considers the economic cost, environmental cost, environmental impact (and) sustainability,” Hegg said. “Nobody knows what ‘the best’ solution is; that’s why we’re looking at many possibilities.
[phil]”There may not be one single approach; what works best in the Midwest may not work in the South, the West, and so on,” Hegg said. “But there doesnï¿½t have to be just one best thing, and I think weï¿½ll find lots of different solutions in different parts of the country.”
Hegg said that no one has ever tried to make biofuels on the scale that the GLBRC is doing. Both Robertson and Keegstra agree that currently, the infrastructure in the U.S. is not built for such a large-scale movement as the government demands.
Keegstra said he believes that a tremendous investment in all kinds of research from wind power to bioefuels will have to be made in order to obtain that ideal infrastructure. “Currently, there are two or three (factories) that make ethanol from cellulosic biomass, and two or three more being produced,” Keegstra said.
A factory in Lansing is expected to be a storehouse for cellulosic ethanol. Progress is being made in the steps towards a greener future, but most agree that it will take a combined effort of both the federal government and the people of this nation to make it a reality. President-Elect Obama has said that he wants to reduce greenhouse gas emissions 80 percent by 2050. “I hope it’s possible,” said Keegstra. “It’s just a matter of how important we’re willing to make it and how much effort we’re willing to put into it.”