Exploring Oklahoma's Green Energy

Uploaded by OSUBioenergy on 25.05.2010

female narrator: What if you could take
the expertise of Oklahoma agriculture,
add the history of our state's energy industry,
and mix it with good old-fashioned
Oklahoma ingenuity and hard work?
Could this be a recipe
for something that could change the world?
Basic cellulosic bio-energy research
is happening around the country,
converting plant materials into fuel and products we use.
The National Science Foundation's
Experimental Program to Stimulate Competitive Research,
or EPSCoR, is funding a team of scientists and engineers
from the state's three largest research facilities:
Oklahoma State University,
the University of Oklahoma,
and the Samuel Roberts Noble Foundation.
- Well, the EPSCoR program
recognizes that you can't just fund one institution
in trying to help a state develop
its research capabilities.
narrator: The research being done now
could put Oklahoma at the forefront
of the bio-energy industry
and lead the nation into energy self-sufficiency.
Nearly all of the country's current biofuel production
comes from corn-based ethanol.
- The problem with corn is, it takes considerable acreage
just to provide energy in the form of ethanol,
whereas it takes acreage away
from human and animal consumption.
Corn is also high in inputs,
that being fertilizer, pesticides, water,
and also for the growing and harvesting of the grain.
narrator: These high inputs contribute to the reason
that corn ethanol returns only 1 1/2 times the energy
for every unit used to make it.
And for Oklahoma producers,
corn is not as well-suited to our climate as other crops,
which is why researchers are studying a different approach:
using lignocellulosic biomass,
especially from perennial grasses such as switchgrass.
- Lignocellulosic material is grass, wheat straw,
trees and branches.
Most of the biomass that you see around is lignocellulosic.
The things that we eat are not.
narrator: Switchgrass was a major part
of the tallgrass prairies that covered our state.
Even though it's been around for a while,
not much is known about growing switchgrass as a crop.
OSU researchers are trying to determine basic yields,
times to harvest, and fertilizer and water needs--
information producers need to know.
- This is an interesting plant.
You know, this is interesting because it's a native plant
that evolved on this continent, had a wide adaptation.
That means adaptation to this environment, temperature,
water, rainfall, insects, disease, weeds.
narrator: Since switchgrass is fairly well-adapted
to our climate, inputs are lower than many other biofuels crops,
which should help increase agricultural sustainability
for Oklahoma producers.
- Just like wheat, corn, and soybeans
that required many years of genetic improvement,
so will switchgrass.
narrator: Researchers are working to improve productivity,
reduce inputs, and enhance disease resistance.
- At this point, at least for the last two or three years,
we did notice that leaf and stem rust
is one of the big problems in switchgrass.
narrator: Rust is a fungus that attacks switchgrass
and reduces yields.
Just like not everyone is susceptible to an illness,
not every switchgrass plant is susceptible to rust.
- So because of the genetic diversity that exists,
some switchgrass plants that will be resistant,
so that form of resistance is usually--
can be transferred within switchgrass.
narrator: A different solution may be found
using a technique called gene silencing.
Instead of using switchgrass,
researchers are using plants
that already have a resistance to rust.
By turning off individual genes in these plants,
they are hoping to find the one that controls resistance.
- So the switchgrass rust cannot infect these plants,
so if we can understand the mechanism
how these model plants
are defending against the rust fungus,
then we can engineer switchgrass
for resisting this particular fungus.
narrator: This research is not only important for rust disease
but can also lead to identifying control mechanisms
for other diseases.
So how do you go from this to this?
- The focus of the EPSCoR research is:
how do you transform biomass
and, in particular in Oklahoma,
what's of interest is switchgrass--
how do you transform that into liquid fuels?
narrator: A problem with switchgrass
is the microbes used in corn ethanol
cannot digest the long molecules of lignocellulosic material.
Of course, grazing animals
have been converting the switchgrass
to usable energy for million of years.
A cow is an example of a natural bio-refinery.
The grass a cow eats is converted into milk
with the help of microbes in the cow's stomach.
- The cow has a very important organ in its digestive system
called the rumen.
The rumen has no oxygen,
and the bacteria and fungi that are present
in the rumen help the cow by breaking down whatever grass,
whatever plant material the cow eats.
narrator: Researchers are studying
whether some of these same microbes
could be used to create ethanol and other products.
Many other organizations around the country
are attempting to directly ferment switchgrass into fuel,
but this research has an advantage
over those methods.
- As of now, many of the plant materials
that are used in direct fermentation
for ethanol production, they require pretreatment.
They require you add enzymes to them.
You pretreat them by alkali or acids
to make them more amenable
for microorganisms to produce ethanol.
And our idea here is, well, if these fungi has been doing it
for a long time in nature without pretreatment,
it's conceivable that they're better than any other treatment
that we use.
narrator: Besides converting biomass directly
using special microorganisms,
OSU and OU are exploring an indirect method.
Using a process called gasification,
all types of biomass can be converted into a gas.
The gas can be further processed into bio-energy
or other bio-products.
Gasification is somewhat like combustion
except without the flame.
- In combustion, for example, you use--
you supply all the air it needs for complete oxidation,
so the biomass combust, and it generates heat.
But in gasification, we don't supply all the air.
Biomass breaks down into smaller molecules
which is mostly gaseous compounds,
and we can use that gas directly as a fuel
or it can further be converted into liquid fuels.
narrator: The gas, called producer or synth gas,
can be indirectly converted into ethanol.
The gas is infused into liquid.
The microbes in that liquid ferment it to ethanol.
Then it's distilled.
OSU is also experimenting with materials called catalysts
to enhance the quality and quantity of the gas.
- Catalysts are solid materials that speed up chemical reactions
or cause a desired chemical reaction
to take place faster
while avoiding undesired chemical reactions.
narrator: At the University of Oklahoma,
researchers are taking a similar yet different approach.
Instead of creating a gas, they are creating a bio-oil
using a process called fast pyrolysis.
- We heat stuff up to 500 degrees C
for a couple seconds and then cool it back down,
and you have a liquid bio-oil instead of a solid.
- In the beginning, the pyrolysis oil,
it's a wild mixture of many, many hundreds of compounds.
And so the task is to separate that
or just partially separate it
and to catalytically convert it into something that is useful
such as fuels or chemicals.
narrator: The ultimate goal is to create a process
that can fit into existing oil refineries' production flow.
- The main objective of the EPSCoR research team
is to provide an economically viable
and sustainable production system
for switchgrass converted into bio-energy.
- I think Oklahoma, because of its heritage in energy
and petroleum refining and agriculture--
lots of land where you can grow switchgrass, for example--
I think that will give us a significant edge
in developing these bio-refineries early.
- This could mean more opportunities
for economic development, including jobs,
in rural Oklahoma.
narrator: With the help of EPSCoR,
researchers are bringing a green future
to Oklahoma's energy industry.