Fueling the Future
USF fuel project joins world’s best new energy technologies in contest.
By Vickie Chachere
TAMPA, Fla. (March 10, 2010) – A process developed by a team of USF researchers which converts common organic materials such as sawdust, yard clippings and even horse manure into jet fuel is among an elite group of 12 projects named as semi-finalists in the prestigious Global Venture Challenge 2010.
The patent-pending project will compete March 25-26 at Oakridge National Laboratory, an event sponsored by the U.S. Department of Energy and leading technology and venture capital organizations. The USF project is in a select field of projects in the category of “Advanced Materials for Sustainable Energy” submitted from leading American universities as well as groups from Canada, Spain and the Netherlands. In addition to cash prizes for winning projects, the Global Venture Challenge is an unparalleled opportunity to connect new technologies to investors who can bring them to market.
The USF project was submitted by chemical engineering professor John T. Wolan; chemical engineering graduate student Syed Ali Gardezi and Jaideep Rajput, a manager in USF’s Division of Patents and Licensing and a graduate student in USF’s College of Business. The venture is incorporated under the name COSI Catalysts Inc.
Their project is a biomass fuel reactor which can convert common organic materials into fuel used for airplanes, jets, trucks or cars. In lab experiments, the group has been able to make jet fuel from sawdust and say almost any kind of organic waste material can be converted through their patent-pending catalytic process.
The project, more than four years in the making, can help produce clean, sustainable fuels that would replace common petroleum products. Creating fuel using the COSI Catalyst technology produces 30 times less sulfur than typical refining methods, according to the inventors. That significantly decreases the amount of sulfur dioxide that ends up in the atmosphere – the precursor that creates acid rain.
In fact, the “green” production process devised by COSI also produces heat which can be used to power turbines for electricity and the most abundant waste the process produces is water, which can be purified and reused, Wolan said.
For now, the group is concentrating on producing jet fuel. The largest use of fossil fuel is for air transportation and it is a significant source of man’s carbon footprint, Wolan noted.
“It’s not the answer to all our energy needs but, we are going to require a liquid fuel source for awhile,” Wolan said of the new COSI Catalyst technology. “This will also help take the reliance off foreign oil.”
The project builds on technology developed in the 1920s called the Fischer–Tropsch process, a catalyzed chemical reaction which creates liquid hydrocarbons mainly from coal. Wolan called the new technology a natural for Florida, one of the nation’s largest producers of organic waste, including hundreds of tons of waste from the agriculture and equine industries produced daily. Organic waste accounts for about 10 to 20 percent of the garbage produced in Florida.
For more than two years, Gardezi - who had spent five years working in ammonia plants around the world - worked together with Wolan on developing an inexpensive catalyst. The process proved fruitful in late 2009 when he and Wolan perfected the reaction process and were able to produce small amounts of jet fuel.
The team’s design focused on the properties of the catalyst – creating an egg-shell like structure of 2mm catalyst pellets which can be tailored to be selective for specific biomass-based fuels. The reactor – small enough to fit on a desk now – utilizes reagent gases produced from sawdust which is then converted to liquid fuel.
As typical with new inventions, Gardezi said once the catalyst was developed he had to continually work on refining the process and the reactor equipment to work properly – a process that might have frustrated less committed researchers.
“When I got that reaction running properly, I was jumping up and down,” Gardezi said.
Enter then, Rajput, a senior licensing manager for USF’s Division of Patents and Licensing and a graduate student, who was a member of a USF team in 2009 named as semifinalists in the Global Venture Challenge for a solar cell project. Rajput set in motion the naming of the company and the entry into the Global Venture Challenge; he will be presenting the project to investors at Oakridge.
The new technology comes at a time when the U.S. Department of Defense has set a goal to shift half of its U.S. aviation fuel consumption to synthetic fuel blends that use domestic feedstocks and are produced in the United States by 2016. That, Rajput noted, creates a natural market for their upstart fuel technology.
But the process is so adaptable that it can be easily adjusted to produce diesel or gasoline, the team notes. The biggest hurdle ahead: the estimated $2 million cost of building a prototype plant which would produce enough fuel to put into widespread testing programs.
“We can bring the cost down and give you a clean, continuous supply of energy,” Rajput said of the technology’s benefits. “We’re not putting stress on food crops; this is not going to send the price of say corn into the atmosphere. Plus, this is going to ease municipal waste and landfill problems.”
“Albert Einstein once wrote: ‘A clever person solves a problem. A wise person avoids it.’ We can no longer avoid our energy problems,” Wolan said.
The Global Venture Challenge 2010 will feature two tracks focused on innovations in energy and security with cash prizes of $25,000 awarded to the winning team for each track. The Advanced Materials for a Sustainable Energy Future track is sponsored by the Department of Energy's Industrial Technologies Program. Track 2 is sponsored by the Department of Homeland Security Community and Regional Resilience Institute to address innovations in Community Resilience and Homeland Security. The teams will be judged by panels of energy executives, venture capitalists, technologists, entrepreneurs and legal experts.
The University of South Florida is one of the nation's top 63 public research universities and one of only 25 public research universities nationwide with very high research activity that is designated as community engaged by the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching. USF was awarded $380.4 million in research contracts and grants in FY 2008/2009. The university offers 232 degree programs at the undergraduate, graduate, specialist and doctoral levels, including the doctor of medicine. The USF System has a $1.8 billion annual budget, an annual economic impact of $3.2 billion, and serves more than 47,000 students on institutions/campuses in Tampa, St. Petersburg, Sarasota-Manatee and Lakeland. USF is a member of the Big East Athletic Conference.