K-State Pools Expertise with Center for Sustainable Energy

The Center for Sustainable Energy, which began taking shape earlier this year, is an effort to bring together all renewable and sustainable energy related activities at K-State - which is saying a lot. That work spans three of K-State's colleges and several departments.

"By consolidating university-wide work on bioenergy, Kansas State University will realize its own efficiencies, which will allow us to take our research to the next level," said M. Duane Nellis, K-State provost and senior vice president. "K-State researchers and resources are being invested in solving this pressing global problem."

The center has three primary goals: to research and develop sustainable energy systems and lower greenhouse gas emissions; to educate those on and off campus about sustainable energy; and to facilitate the adoption of new technology by industrial users. The center was established with a $750,000 K-State Targeted Excellence grant to provide incentives for active research in sustainable energy.

Initially, center activities have focused on the sustainable and efficient conversion of biomass to biofuels and related products. Biomass is the biological material used to produce fuel, typically from plants.

"Kansas State University is uniquely positioned to succeed in this arena," said Mary Rezac, one of the center's two co-directors. "From designing a genetically better plant to understanding the ultimate impact of the emissions which are generated by biofuels, we have researchers who are actively involved."

Much of the work to date has had to do with ethanol, an alcohol fuel that is gaining in popularity. Ethanol is made when the starch in grain like corn is converted to sugar, which is then fermented. That process also produces distillers grains and carbon dioxide.

Distillers grains are fed to livestock as a partial replacement for other feed grains. But the animals can only eat so much of it before growth performance and beef quality are affected.

K-State's Praveen Vadlani, an assistant professor of grain science and industry, has devised a secondary fermentation process through which he's been able to add protein and other nutrients to distillers grains. The hope is that this added value will make it more marketable.

But as the demand for ethanol increases it's likely that the co-product will need additional outlets. Vadlani also is looking at what other chemicals and products can be derived from distillers grains to replace those made today from nonrenewable petroleum resources.

Researcher Bikram Gill, university distinguished professor of plant pathology, is working to engineer plants so that more of the physical structure can be converted into fuel. The kind of ethanol that is commercially available today is made from the starch in grain. But things like wheat bran, straw and dedicated energy crops like switchgrass can go into producing what is called cellulosic ethanol. That process involves breaking down the plants structural components, which is not easy. Gill is working on the genetic level to make these components more susceptible for deconstruction, so that biomass can more efficiently be converted into fuel.

"We've had millennia of evolving the plants for use as food. We haven't selected them for their potential to produce fuel," said Ron Madl, the Center for Sustainable Energy's other co-director. "Our goal now is to develop plant resources designed for more efficient conversion to energy or bio-based products."

Center researchers also are looking at new plants for fuel and the most sustainable way to manage crops. Part of that research has to do with water and the amount of carbon and other nutrients retained in the soil.

Overall, the center will allow for better coordination of efforts across departments and it will ensure that K-State is efficiently using its own resources to solve energy issues.

Microbes feed on sugars derived from the starch in a grain of corn, fermenting it into an energy-efficient fuel, carbon dioxide and a third product called distillers grains. This is the story of ethanol. Vadlani is taking this energy-efficient fuel to the next level. He's investigating how to best use one of ethanol's key co-products, distillers grains. Vadlani's work also falls under the university's Bioprocessing and Industrial Value Added Program.

Distillers grains are fed to livestock as a partial replacement for corn or other feed grains. But cattle can only eat so much of it before growth performance and beef quality are affected.

"It's already got a lot of protein, some leftover sugar and fiber, oil and some ash," Vadlani said.

He puts the grains through a secondary fermentation process to add more nutritive qualities to it.

"We are adding value to the product by converting fiber into protein," Vadlani said. "Recently, we also started some research where not only are we increasing the protein, we're trying to get some high amino acid profiles and antioxidants, too."

This added value should make distiller's grains more useful to not only animal feed manufacturers, but also to the livestock eating it. And, as ethanol becomes more popular, there also will be more distillers grains.

"With so much ethanol activity going on, distillers grains will to be produced in large quantities," Vadlani said. "At some point, the market will be saturated."

As more is added to the distillers grains, a broader variety of animals will be able to consume them, according to Vadlani.

"We're developing a premium product," he said.

Vadlani's research also is making sure that the energy-efficient fuel is sustainable, which he says is critical.

"Fossil fuels are finite. Crude oil is going to run out someday," Vadlani said. "The way that fossil fuels have been produced has left some environmental footprints."

We don't want to make the same mistakes with new fuel sources, Vadlani said. "We know what kind of issues are going to come up and it's our responsibility to develop these products in such a way that all things are satisfied."

That's why Vadlani is also looking at developing other chemicals from distillers grains, so that those can replace the things made today from nonrenewable petroleum resources.

Sustainability, he said, will mean benefits for the rural economy and agriculture in Kansas, as well as for the environment.

"The transition from fossil fuels to renewable resources will be smoother if we try and figure all of these things out now," he said.

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