Archive for Tuesday, August 18, 2009

The energy evolution: From biorefining to oil recovery, KU makes headway on green projects

Matt Legresley, Lawrence, is the leader of the team of KU engineering students that has transformed a 1974 Volkswagen Super Beetle.

August 18, 2009


Kansas University instructor Chris Depcik, left, gets ready to help his students Ryan Lierz, driver’s seat, and Lou McKown start a hybrid 1974 Volkswagen Super Beetle. The bug starts on biodiesel and then runs on an electric motor.

Kansas University instructor Chris Depcik, left, gets ready to help his students Ryan Lierz, driver’s seat, and Lou McKown start a hybrid 1974 Volkswagen Super Beetle. The bug starts on biodiesel and then runs on an electric motor.

If the United States is in the midst of a “green” revolution, Kansas University researchers are working with alongside the world’s biggest players — now and in the future — to be a part of the energy industry’s fast-moving evolution.

It’s a team approach KU leaders consider beyond reproach.

“We call it total energy innovation,” said Jeremy Viscomi, program officer for the KU Energy Council. “We’re trying to look at it from all forms of energy, from every conceivable angle.”

By assembling project rosters that include various experts, financing sources and fields of influence, officials hope to be a part of some of the most influential — and market-ready — research that current and future conditions demand.

An effort may include a petroleum engineer, a physicist, an urban planner, a marketing expert and an industry partner to develop alternative fuels, Viscomi said.

Students taking part in such efforts learn that their work goes beyond basic research and reaches into comprehensive project development.

And that, the thinking goes, increases the chances of such work moving forward in today’s economy.

“We want to find partnerships and create innovations in a more efficient manner,” Viscomi said. “That’s what we try to do.”

Here’s a rundown of some of the university’s biggest and most promising initiatives in the field.


Archer Daniels Midland Co. is climbing aboard a KU research effort, bring along $1.2 million in financing.

The money is considered a match to accompany a $1.2 million grant from the Kansas Bioscience Authority, all to help finance research into converting biomass and other waste products — think wheat straw and corn stalks leftover after harvest — into fuels and chemicals designed to replace or improve upon petroleum-based products, including lubricants and plastics.

ADM is interested, at least in part, because such efforts could be integrated into the company’s five processing plants in the state.

KU also is investing in the effort, providing $334,000 of in-kind support for the three-year project, through leadership of the Center for Environmentally Beneficial Catalysis.

The center is part of a larger research effort, a $4.2 million partnership known as the Kansas Bioenergy and Biorefining Center of Innovation.

The partnership combines the expertise of researchers at both KU and Kansas State University, working to use commercial biorefining to develop alternative fuels and chemicals, commercialize efficient biomass resources for power and improve carbon capture efforts.

The expected payoff, according to the Kansas Bioscience Authority: three biorefineries and $600 million in sales of cellulosic ethanol over five years; addition of 1,800 direct jobs and 3,600 indirect jobs; direct revenue of $3.6 billion; and extra income of $30,000 per harvest per farm.


A team of KU engineering students is working to create a vehicle designed to help improve fuel-efficiency performance — and perhaps even shift design efforts into high gear in Detroit.

The students, enrolled in ME 645: Design Option E, are busy converting a 1974 Volkswagen Beetle into a fuel-stretching, road-worthy research effort formally known as the Fuel Neutral Series Hybrid Vehicle Conversion Project.

It’s a job they hope to one day see achieve an ambitious milestone: an ability to travel 500 miles on a single gallon of fuel.

Such efficiency is considered attainable when combining hybrid technology with the another KU research project, one led by Susan Williams, an associate professor of chemical and petroleum engineering: biodiesel fuel brewed using discarded cooking oil from the Ekdahl Dining Commons on Daisy Hill.

After a single year of work — “just getting the car running,” student Gavin Strunk said — the vehicle’s development is poised to accelerate as technology advances.

By pursuing a “modular” design, students anticipated future generations of components to help with such progress.

“If there are new batteries, you can swap out just the batteries,” said Strunk, who graduated in May after working on the vehicle’s electronics. “It kind of allows a dynamic changing of the car. That will allow you to eventually, maybe get into where a company would want to put in exactly what we have, or a variation of it.”

This coming year, students working on the project will be tasked with getting the Super Beetle certified as street legal and also to update it as a viable plug-in hybrid, complete with a solar-powered fueling station.

“We want them to drive around town and get some real-world data,” said Chris Depcik, an assistant professor of mechanical engineering who created the class. “We’re trying to make it as real-world applicable as possible.”

Oil recovery

Drug-delivery technology devised, refined and patented at KU now is being applied to an entirely new application: pumping untapped oil from known petroleum reserves.

The application of such nanotechnology — tiny particles capable of carrying oil-releasing agents deep into rock formations — is being financed by ConocoPhillips. The energy company intends to pump up to $400,000 a year into the work during each of the next three years.

The goal is to increase oil production, by tapping into previously unreachable depths of oil exploration and extraction.

Energy companies regularly pump water into long-since-tapped reservoirs, to squeeze oil from crevices and pores in rock. But such water-pumping has its limits, leaving plenty of potential energy behind.

That’s where KU’s nanotechnology — the same kind that can protect cancer-fighting drugs until they reach diseased cells in a body — comes in.

Current technology typically limits protection of oil-recovery agents for only four to six hours, limiting the reach of their usefulness.

The KU technology can contain such agents for up to 60 days, allowing them to be pumped deeper beneath the surface and farther into oil-holding formations of rock.


Viscomi notes that energy-related efforts don’t all involved oil and fuels. Among other projects under way at KU:

• Super-efficient building materials. Imagine an air conditioner that is 60 percent more efficient. Mario Medina, an associate professor of civil engineering, and Ray Thehavi, a professor of aerospace engineering, are working on it.

The team is developing a waxlike substance that can be used in refrigerated trucks and in various building materials. It works by melting during the day — thereby absorbing heat — and solidifies at night.

• High-performance solar cells. Judy Wu, a distinguished professor of physics, is working to use nanotechnology to create lower-cost solar cells. The goal for such third-generation cells would be to make them commercially viable, and therefore appropriate for widespread use.


lounger 8 years, 9 months ago

I agree with LesBlevins- How is tapping into Oil Green????

bankboy119 8 years, 9 months ago

"pumping untapped oil from known petroleum reserves"

They aren't opening up new reserves. They are using the ones they already have, wasting less. We are never all going to walk/cycle, that's not a viable idea. So besides developing new sources of energy, that are definitely needed, wasting less oil helps as well.

bankboy119 8 years, 9 months ago


International commerce. Spout off all you want about "car dependency" but going completely to walking/cycling would dissolve governments and commerce and business as we know it. You may be okay with that, but get realistic.

bankboy119 8 years, 9 months ago

Haha keep telling yourself that. Society is not going to regress into tribal states. We will be forced to finally make energy improvements. And let me repeat again, we need to make energy improvements.

Fear and malaise have nothing to do with it. How many people will be put out of jobs because you only want to use bicycles? How much less choice will we have on food? How will the organic farmers get from the country into town so you can purchase the non-processed food? And if you say grow your own instead how will the entire community be affected from adverse weather? How will medicine and/or patients be transferred to needed facilities?

Seriously, think the entire scenario through before spouting off, please.

bankboy119 8 years, 9 months ago


What technology are you referring to?

bankboy119 8 years, 9 months ago

"Otherwise, your red herrings about “adverse weather” are the usual nonsense “spouted” off by people too lazy to ride even on the nice days."


I was out on my bike when it was -7 and iced over, riding to work. So before you make a personal attack, get your facts straight.

Jevon's Paradox argues the futility of trying to conserve energy if I remember correctly. I'm not arguing to keep us dependent upon oil. Alternatives need to be given. Viable alternatives. A regressive society is not a viable option.

Yes, in the old days farmers had horses and wagons. Even further back we were a hunter/gatherer society. How far back would you like to regress? Should we get rid of global communication and the telephone as well? A great example of trying to better society is electronic processing. Less paper is wasted. We didn't regress back just to use less paper and keep less records.

Oil shortages? Already happening, society is transforming.

Some people are lazy, some people are not. Not my call.

I could come up with hundreds of other issues with problems of going to a strictly cycle/walk society. There's no reason.

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