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You Visit Tour. Webb Lion Fountain. June 1 2017. Photo David B. Hollingsworth

Old Dominion Biofuels Research Powered by New Teaching Grant

By Brendan O'Hallarn

When Sandeep Kumar arrived at Old Dominion University five years ago, his field of research - biofuels - was hot. With gasoline cresting at $4 a gallon at the pump, a worldwide hunt was on for affordable fuel alternatives, particularly ones that left a smaller carbon footprint.

Half a decade later, the price of gasoline is little more than half that amount. Earlier this year, gasoline was less than $2 per gallon nationwide.

But while some industry partners have moved away from alternative fuel research and investment, "most stakeholders, especially the government, never backed off. Universities have continued to invest in research in fuel alternatives," said Kumar, assistant professor of civil and environmental engineering in Old Dominion's Frank Batten College of Engineering and Technology. This is reflected in a new National Science Foundation (NSF) grant won by biofuels researchers at the University

Since arriving at Old Dominion, Kumar has received $1.2 million in grants from agencies such as the NSF, the Environmental Protection Agency and private industry. In his latest project, he is co-principal investigator collaborating with Xiaoyu Zhang, assistant professor of mechanical and aerospace engineering. Their work is funded by a three-year, $340,000 grant from NSF investing in another form of "energy" - young scientists themselves.

The NSF-Research Experiences for Undergraduates site at Old Dominion University will allow 10 young scholars to do hands-on research at the university in biofuels applications for 10 weeks during each of three summers, starting in 2017.

The undergraduates (from Old Dominion and other area universities and across the nation) will learn about applying electrochemical technologies in the production of clean fuels. Kumar's laboratory is studying the applicability of this method of extracting from algae the material needed to produce biofuels.

In addition to studying and using the technology to process algae to biofuels and their byproducts, the students will study hydrogen production, fuel cell applications and the development of future biorefineries. The students will also study other clean fuel production applications, including solar fuel production, biofuels upgrading and production and fuel cell materials and applications.

Zhang, whose research focuses on renewable energy systems and applications, is the leader of the Research Experiences project. He said this methodology is promising in the ongoing effort to reduce the energy inputs required to produce biofuels, driving down the cost of production.

"An important aspect of this research is to train the new generation of scientists to advance the field further," Zhang said.

The project is being run through the Batten College Energy Cluster, a research group led by Kumar that brings together faculty expertise across engineering disciplines to facilitate cooperation on energy research, build a strong energy curriculum at ODU both at the undergraduate and graduate levels and promote research to the larger community.

For the first time this fall, a multidisciplinary undergraduate minor in energy engineering is being offered through the Energy Cluster.

The race is on to find sustainable alternatives to fossil fuels to meet the globe's soaring demand for transportation fuel and bioproducts. A 2013 report from the National Research Council determined that converting 5 percent of transportation fuels (more than 10 billion gallons per year) to algae-based biofuels would place unsustainable demands on energy, water and nutrients if produced with current technologies.

Working in a lab in Kaufman Hall, Kumar's team can produce biofuels while extracting and recovering or recycling more than 70 percent of the nitrogen and 90 percent of the phosphorus from the algae in just a few seconds, using a flash hydrolysis process developed by Kumar. The extracted nutrients are subsequently recovered as slow-release fertilizer and a biomaterial using a novel hydrothermal mineralization process. The integrated process is aimed at using 100 percent of components of algae biomass for biofuels, bioproducts and biomaterials.

The Research Experiences for Undergraduates Site at Old Dominion University engages undergraduates traditionally underrepresented in STEM fields. This project, the first of its kind involving Old Dominion engineering faculty members, offers opportunities for undergraduate science students to work with a multidisciplinary team of faculty mentors and industry professionals.

In addition to active energy research projects mentored by faculty from the Batten College, students will participate in research seminars, workshops on writing and communications training, field trips to industries related to clean energy and career development activities. Recruitment of participants will target 12 collaborating institutions including historically black colleges and universities and undergraduate institutions with limited STEM research activities.