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Archive for Sunday, August 14, 2011

Transportation Research Institute investigating infrastructure and alternative fuels

August 14, 2011

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When Bob Honea talks about transportation he speaks slowly, thoughtfully and with a Southern accent.

Honea hails from Georgia and has spent the bulk of his career working at the Transportation Research Center in Oak Ridge, Tenn. Now Honea is the director of KU’s Transportation Research Institute, a position he has held since 2006.

“Fundamentally, (transportation) is about moving a material or an idea from one place to another that increases its value,” Honea says. “Here at (TRI) we’ve tried to get research going in almost every facet of transportation.”

The KU institute is an interdisciplinary research center, launched by a $14.5 million appropriation from Congress in 2004. Each year a committee at TRI pores over stacks of research proposals, then gives money to deserving applicants. TRI has funded 150 graduate students, 80 research projects, and has supplied chunks of salary for 90 faculty members.

Researchers at TRI focus on three main pursuits: advancing vehicles and fuel; extending road and bridge life; and improving safety for aging and inattentive drivers.

Alternative fuel

One of TRI’s main projects is its Feedstock to Tailpipe Initiative. It aims to derive fuel from alternative sources such as soybeans, waste cooking oil and algae.

Currently, the KU cafeteria gives TRI waste cooking oil periodically, and that oil is converted into biodiesel, which fuels lawnmowers.

Engineers at TRI produce biodiesel, a renewable fuel, from cooking oil in much the same way that people make lye soap from old grease.

Realistically, creating biodiesel from waste cooking oil cannot displace petroleum as a major fuel source, says Val Smith, professor of ecology, who works on the Feedstock Initiative. Biofuels produced from oil seed crops such as soybeans are part of the answer, but no single plant crop would be able to replace petroleum-based fuels over the long term either, he says.

But TRI researchers are focusing on something that might: microalgae.

“Biodiesel produced from algae currently seems to be the only renewable biofuel that has the potential to replace a significant portion of the world’s demand for petroleum-based transport fuels without affecting global supplies of food and other crop products that are essential for human welfare and commerce,” Smith says.

But there are problems. For one, microscopic aquatic animals like to munch on algae, gobbling up the plants like insects gorging on garden vegetables.

“We have solved this potential problem by introducing mosquitofish, which eat the small grazing animals and allow the algae to grow without being over-eaten,” Smith says.

Despite these advances, Smith says one key question remains unanswered: “Can we successfully and cost-effectively ramp up production to the levels that will be needed to create commercial-scale quantities of biofuels from algae?”

To come closer to that answer, TRI is working with the Lawrence wastewater treatment plant to find ways to supply large-scale algal production units with the nutrition they need to thrive.

While one group of researchers plugs away at that problem, others try to improve our cars.

Engineering students in a group called EcoHawks have been turning old cars into electric vehicles. With funds from TRI, EcoHawks converted a 1974 Volkswagen Beetle with a combustion engine into a series-hybrid vehicle powered by biodiesel. Members are now converting a GMC Jimmy into an all electric vehicle, too.

“TRI has been, since the beginning, a leading supporter of funds for all the EcoHawks projects,” says Bryan Strecker, of EcoHawks. “They have truly been a great help in getting the program going.”

Many of TRI’s big projects are centered on efforts to go green. For instance, this past spring, TRI partnered with people from KU’s Center for Design Research to launch Lawrence’s first electric vehicle charging station. The station is at the new Center for Design Research, a building on KU’s West Campus at the Chamney Farm property. The station looks like a gasoline pump.

“It’s not very sexy: It’s basically just a big electrical cord on a white metal box,” says Gregory Thomas, director of CDR. “The nice thing about this (station) is that it’s beginning the dialog of people interested in buying these vehicles.”

The center is charged by wind turbines and solar panels. TRI funded all transportation uses at the center with a $50,000 award.

Extending road and bridge life

TRI is also trying to come up with technologies to make roads and bridges last longer. Currently two groups of students collect data on bridge decks. One group studies steel, the other concrete. What they’ve found is that bridges lasted longer 30 years ago than they do today.

The reason? Water.

Concrete was dispersed in smaller amounts back then. Now cement is liquefied, which decays bridge life. It’s hoped that findings such as this will alter how roads and bridges are built, Honea says.

The idea is to change convention and invent technologies to improve infrastructure.

As he talks, Honea picks up a piece of material that looks like a six-pack ring for a string of sodas — an embodiment of the technology he speaks of.

“This is geofabric,” Honea says. “It’s used under asphalt highway. You pour crushed rock on top of it, and it keeps stones from wandering around.”

Keeping the gravel trapped makes the road last longer. And healthier roads mean improved driver safety, TRI’s third area of study.

Driver Safety

Currently Honea is talking to a landscape architect about how to declutter intersections so aging drivers aren’t overcome by stimuli.

“We’re trying to see what we can do to keep people’s reaction times up to snuff,” Honea says.

“I think we’re going to have to think differently about how we use energy in a more holistic manner,” he says. “It doesn’t matter if you’re going to church or going to buy a loaf of bread, transportation is involved.”

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