Fueling Change

Fueling Change

Alternative fuels–a topic that sparks political, social, intellectual, and cultural debates. As gasoline prices continue to fluctuate, nearly everyone has an opinion about fuel production and consumption and, ultimately, about how to rescue the motorist at the pump, curb U.S. dependency on foreign oil, and lessen adverse effects on the environment.

While debate rolls on, raising many questions, faculty members at the University of Tennessee at Martin are doing what they do best–preparing college graduates who will try to find the answers. And as part of university outreach, workshops are being conducted for regional high-school educators to help provide a strong background for students who want to pursue post-secondary education or training in a myriad of bioenergy-related fields. UT Martin faculty members also are providing technical support at seminars for local and regional officials as multimillion-dollar ethanol plants and biodiesel operations come online.

“This is a new frontier, and we’re proud to be part of it,” says Dr. Jim Byford, dean of the UT Martin College of Agriculture and Applied Sciences and a proponent of biofuels, especially ethanol. “We have the capacity to be energy self-sufficient and not adversely affect our food supply.” Byford points to recent announcements of two ethanol plants within 10 miles of UT Martin. A 100-million-gallon plant in Obion County is targeted for completion in January 2008, and construction of a 55-million-gallon plant is underway in Fulton, Kentucky. A 60-million–gallon plant is already in production in Loudon County. There are a hundred plants nationwide and another 40 under construction, he says.

“We can produce corn cheaper than anywhere else in the world. Commercial corn ethanol is here now, and there are enough plants to produce four-point-six billion gallons per year.” Corn yields continue to increase, he says. U.S. production since the 1930s is up more than 400 percent on 25 percent less land.

“Genetically engineered corn varieties especially suited to make ethanol are being developed, and ethanol production efficiency is still increasing,” says Byford. “Producing ethanol from nonfood materials, such as switchgrass and woody plants, will ultimately yield the most ethanol on a sustainable basis, but we’re three to five years away from commercial economic feasibility.

“It’s the most exciting thing I’ve done in my career,” Byford says of his involvement in the Obion County plant. “This is monumental for farmers, economic development, and the region. It gives us new life.”

Biodiesel is another promising option. Dr. Tim Burcham, professor of agricultural engineering, is enthusiastic about biodiesel’s potential as a transportation fuel. “The technology to produce biodiesel is available today and offers opportunities for Americans to reduce our dependency on foreign oil,” he says. Biodiesel is a domestically produced renewable fuel for use in diesel engines that is derived from natural oils and fats. Soybean oil is the leading feedstock for biodiesel production in the U.S. Other sources include canola oil, corn oil, and used cooking oil and fats. Natural oils are converted to bio-diesel by a relatively simple chemical conversion called transesterification.

Current U.S. biodiesel production capacity of approximately 350 million gallons a year is expected to double within the next 18 months. There are more plants under construction (68) than are currently in operation. If capacity eventually reaches 1 billion gallons, that would represent almost 2 percent of the nearly 55-billion-gallon annual diesel consumption in the U.S., according to Crop Insights.

While Byford and Burcham focus on different fuel alternatives, both agree that biofuels will be a vital part of agriculture’s future. Genetics will play an increasing role in tailoring corn, soybeans, and other natural products to be efficient fuel sources, they say, and they agree that educating the public about these sources will be key to a successful transition to biofuels. The UT Martin Department of Agriculture and Natural Resources has the resources to do just that. The department offers a program of study in agricultural engineering technology and has faculty members with experience in technologies associated with alternative-fuels production. They have proposed a broad-based biofuels option in the agricultural science concentration. The biofuels option will include new courses in agricultural engineering technology and plant science to augment current offerings.

“In the past, agriculture has focused on creating stability in food and fiber,” Burcham says. “With future expectations of agriculture and natural resources, the focus will be food, fiber, and fuels. This represents one of the most radical changes in agriculture since land-grant universities were established.”

Even high-school students are getting into the biofuels act: youngsters enrolled in the 2006 Governor’s School for the Agricultural Sciences at UT Martin made biodiesel from used cooking oil. The fuel was used to power a single-cylinder diesel engine in the small-engines laboratory. “As the supply of -petroleum-based fuels decreases, there will be increased demand for knowledge about alternative fuels,” Burcham says. “The demand for information will be proportional to the need for these fuels.”

Looking ahead, the department has proposed the development of the Biofuels Education and Research Facility to serve as a laboratory for the teaching program in agricultural engineering technology, as well as an outreach center to help the public understand alternative fuels, particularly biofuels. “The mission of land-grant universities has always been to provide education, research, and development activities to improve the lives of people in their region,” Burcham says. “With the anticipated increase in worldwide demand for fuel, it’s imperative that researchers in the United States develop technologies that ensure energy independence for future generations of Americans.”