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

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.