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Fuel, low-cost battery: Johnson sees impact of Sun Grant Initiative

Sen. Tim Johnson

A visit to South Dakota State University’s biofuels laboratory in the Agricultural Engineering Building gave Sen. Tim Johnson a chance to learn how scientists are making cornstalks and switchgrass into fuel and using one of the byproducts to make low-cost batteries.

University researchers also took the opportunity to thank Johnson for his support of the Sun Grant Initiative emphasizing its importance to their work.

The Sun Grant Initiative is a network of land-grant universities collaborating with government agencies and the private sector to develop bio-based transportation fuels.

Lin Wei, assistant professor of agricultural and biosystems engineering, explained how his patent-pending rotating fluidized bed reactor produces bio-oil. “This is the only one in the world,” Wei said. No carrier gas is needed to feed the material into continually processing system. Traditional pyrolysis reactors require high-pressure carrier gas, which increases the cost of production.

In addition to bio-oil, the reactor produces syngas and biochar. Wei uses the syngas to preheat the bio-oil, which must be processed using chemicals called catalysts to remove oxygen and other elements to make liquid fuel that is close to gasoline.

In measuring its energy capacity, Wei said that this fuel has one-third more energy than ethanol. Wei’s next goal is to improve the reactor’s conversion efficiency from 30 to 40 gallons of fuel per ton of feedstock to 90 gallons.

Van Kelley, head of the agricultural and biosystems engineering department, then explained how assistant professor ZhenGrong Gu has developed a patent-pending process to turn biochar into activated carbon that can be used in capacitors, which can efficiently store energy. Using activated carbon, the capacitors can be produced at 2 percent of the cost of regular batteries. These devices can store wind energy or be used as batteries in electric vehicles.

For these projects, Kelley said, “100 percent of equipment funds come from Sun Grant.”

Through another research grant, Gu also devised a method to turn biochar into fertilizer, a technique which has been licensed to a commercial company. The end product, Kelley said, “can be returned to the land as sequestered carbon.”

Mark Leuke, managing director of South Dakota Innovation Partners, said his business complements the researchers’ skills, providing seed funds for start-up businesses. South Dakota Innovation Partners helped start Prairie Aqua Tech LLC and Cyanosun Energy LLC.

Prairie Aqua Tech uses plant-based protein from soybeans and dried distillers grains, a coproduct of the ethanol industry, to reduce the cost of fish food. William Gibbons, professor of biology and microbiology, said this company is within a year of selling commercial quantities of its product. The company now has 20 employees.

Cyanosun Energy is scaling up technologies developed through the Sun Grant Initiative to produce fuel using genetically-engineered algae called cyanobacteria, Gibbons said.

Vice President for Research Kevin Kephart said that 25 percent of Sun Grant funds stay at SDSU, while 75 percent are awarded regionally for research projects.

Johnson pledged continued support for the Sun Grant Initiative. The Senate version of the 2012 Farm Bill contains $2.25 million for Sun Grant, a level Johnson said he would like to maintain.