Alternative fuel method could bring big reward

The goal was sustainability, efficiency and recognition, and after more than four years, it was achieved.

A team of USF researchers, who developed a way to convert organic materials into liquid fuel, was named semifinalists in the Global Venture Challenge 2010 competition – sponsored by the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) – and will compete today and Friday against 11 other projects for $25,000.

The team – competing in the “Advanced Materials for Sustainable Energy” category – left Wednesday for the Oakridge National Laboratory in Tennessee, where the event is taking place.

The project was spearheaded by chemistry engineering professor John T. Wolan and was submitted by his research team: chemical engineering graduate student Syed Ali Gardezi and business school graduate student and USF department of Patents and Licensing manager Jaideep Raiput.

Wolan said his team decided to enter their research to gain attention from the DOE and show others that hard work can pay off.

The team used a biomass reactor to convert organic material such as woodchips, fruit waste and horse manure instead of coal to create liquid fuels for airplanes, jets or cars, he said.

Using biomass material is not only beneficial to the environment but also to Florida, which according to a release is one of the largest producers of organic waste in the nation, Wolan said.

The key to the conversion process was catalyst technology developed by Wolan and his grad students that converted the organic waste into fuel. To do so, the catalyst produces 30 times less sulfur than common refining methods, which makes the production of fuel more efficient and environmentally friendly.

The process converts biomass into fuel and generates heat that can be used to power turbines for electricity and water purification, Wolan said.

The team’s work – more than four years long – has caught the attention of other departments on campus.

“In another few years, I can see this becoming a more viable alternative for producing renewable fuels,” said Babu Joseph, former chairman and current professor for the Department of Chemical and Biomedical Engineering.

The team is now concentrating on producing jet fuel, an area Steve Reich, program director at the Center for Urban Transportation Research at USF, said could mean big things for transportation.

“Many of the alternative fuels haven’t really been applicable to something like aviation,” he said. “The fact that this is not competing with the food supply, as it can be an issue with some of the bio-fuels available, has huge implications.”

The next step, Wolan said, is for the team to create a pilot plant, a full production plant that produces approximately 300 to 500 gallons a day of pure diesel, jet fuel or gasoline.

But that will have to wait until after the competition. The teams will be judged this week by panels of energy executives, venture capitalists, technologists, entrepreneurs and legal experts, a feat Wolan said he did not expect.

“We wrote a five-page paper to see if we got accepted, and we were one of few teams in the world that have been asked to present,” he said.