Colleges Turn to An Array of Alternative Fuels

from Wildlife Promise

When it comes to on-campus renewable energy installations, certain types are more common than others.  Solar, wind, and geothermal projects make up the majority of projects, but those three are by no means the only alternative sources of energy that campuses are employing. Some are extremely efficient and offer potential for broad application; others are more suited to limited application. A few are even controversial.

That being said, here are 10 of the most unusual and innovate things that colleges have begun to experiment with, from the practical to the theoretical:

1. Biomass

While not as common as solar and geothermal installations, the use of biomass is quickly gaining popularity on some of the more Sustainability-minded campuses. Middlebury College, in Vermont is one such school. The Middlebury website explains the process this way:

Photo by Flickr user esagor, used with Creative Commons license.

Photo by Flickr user esagor, used with Creative Commons license.

Biomass gasification is much more complex and efficient than a household wood stove. Wood chips are superheated in a low oxygen chamber where they smolder and emit wood-gas. Oxygen is then introduced on the backside of the boiler causing the gas to ignite, producing heat (at temperatures of over 1100° F) to make steam that is distributed throughout campus for heating, cooling, hot water and cooking.

Exhaust from this process circulates through a cyclone separator, forcing larger particles to drop out. The exhaust then enters the bag house where it passes through a series of filters to remove fine particulate matter. The filtration system in Middlebury’s biomass plant is rated to remove 99.7 percent of particulates, so most of what one sees coming from the smoke stack is water vapor.

For more information about the different types and applications of biomass energy, check out this guide from the BioMass Energy Centre.

2. Algae

A second somewhat offbeat renewable energy source that more and more colleges and universities are experimenting with is algae. At the College of William and Mary, for example, launched a program this summer to grow and collect algae which, when harvested, is turned into biodiesel for use in vehicles and in oil-fired heating systems. From their website:

Photo by Flickr user AgriLife, used with Creative Commons license

Photo by Flickr user AgriLife, used with Creative Commons license

Considered as a replacement for petroleum, an individual alga is basically a bag of oil supported by a skeleton or shell.

Algae are good candidates for use as biofuel because of their rapid growth rates, ability to take-up nutrients such as nitrogen and phosphorus, and some of these aquatic plants have as much as 50 percent oil content, depending on environmental factors.

Researchers at the school believe that the use of wild algae has a number of advantages over other biofuel approaches. For one thing, algae sequesters carbon. Some other biofuels, such as corn ethanol, have run into problems because they do the opposite. Another advantage is that algae can be grown in almost any climate, and can provide other ecosystem services such as water purification. For more information on algal fuels, check out oilgae.com.

3. Cows

For several years now, Green Mountain College has been purchasing a large portion of its electricity from a creative source  — energy created from burning methane from cow manure on Vermont dairy farms. The college’s website explains the unusual choice:

Photo by Flickr user publicenergy, used with Creative Commons license.

Photo by Flickr user publicenergy, used with Creative Commons license.

College officials were drawn to the idea that, unlike standard renewable energy certificates (also known as “green tags”), which simply ensure that renewable power is produced somewhere, Cow Power has the added benefit of being a regional program where students and employees can actually see the farms where the power is being generated and learn about the process.

Other air and water quality issues are also significant. Farm methane that would otherwise be released into the atmosphere is 20 times more potent than CO2 as a greenhouse gas. Additionally, the methane digestion process removes harmful pathogens from the manure making it much safer in the event of an accidental spill into a body of water.

For more information on Cow Power and methane biogas, check out the website for the Central Vermonth Public Service power company that provides Green Mountain’s energy.

4. Landfills

Cows aren’t the only source of methane for use as renewable energy, as Hudson Valley Community College knows well. The school has been using methane from a local landfill to help generate power for several years. The process is detailed on the school’s website:

Photo by Flickr user D'Arcy Norman, used with Creative Commons License.

Photo by Flickr user D'Arcy Norman, used with Creative Commons License.

Methane produced by the landfill, through the natural decomposition of wastes, is captured and transported via a 3,100-foot pipeline that is buried five-feet deep. The pipeline is located on the outskirts of campus, and traverses an open field. Landfill gas that is recovered with an adequate and efficient collection system is much safer and cleaner than either venting or flaring the gas, as is done currently.

The plant burns a combination of methane and natural gas to power the generators. When the methane levels decrease from the landfill, the facility will switch over to natural gas. The combustion process is clean and complete, and does not produce any odors.

Visit the EPA’s website to learn more about landfill methane sequestration.

5. Sunflowers

Students in Ohio’s Athens Alternative Education Project have partnered with Ohio University to develop yet another renewable biofuel, this one made from sunflower oil. Tyler Furr, an AAEP senior who has spent the last year working on the project, explained the idea to collegegreenmag.com in this way:

Photo by Flickr user Vitó, used with Creative Commons License.

Photo by Flickr user Vitó, used with Creative Commons License.

“After planting and harvesting the sunflowers, we use a seed-press to squeeze the oil out of the seeds,” Furr said. “After that, we refine the oil in our processing facility which gives us the finished fuel.”

The finished product can be burned on its own or mixed with petroleum diesel to produce a cleaner-burning, environmentally healthier fuel. Additionally, the byproduct of the refining process, called seed cake, can be used as a feed concentrate for livestock.

To learn more about the project and about the applications for the sunflower bio-fuel, check out this article from the Columbus Dispatch.

6. Corn

As we mentioned above, the development of some forms of corn-based alternative fuel has run up against serious concerns. Corn ethanol, for example, has largely failed to live up to early expectations; California has declared that its carbon footprint is unsustainable, and questions are perennially raised as to the wisdom of burning a food source in a world where people are starving. However, some schools such as Pennsylvania State University have found a way to obtain energy by burning shelled corn, which according to Carnegie Institution’s Department of Global Ecology is more efficient and cost-effective. From the PennState website:

Photo by Flickr user Dey, used with Creative Commons License.

Photo by Flickr user Dey, used with Creative Commons License.

Burning shelled corn as a fuel can be a feasible way of dealing with the high prices of more conventional fuels such as fuel oil, propane, natural gas, coal, and firewood. Shelled corn is a fuel that can be produced within 180 days, compared to the millennia needed to produce fossil fuels.

Proponents tout shelled corn as a good alternative not only to corn ethanol, but also to traditional wood-burning heating units. Corn stoves burn 20 percent hotter than wood, and produce less ash and soot. They also do not require a traditional chimney system, but instead need only an exhaust vent, much like a vent for a clothes dryer. Click here to learn more.

7. Coffee Grounds

Sierra Nevada College has found another unlikely source of bio-fuel: spent coffee grounds. With 16 billion pounds of coffee being produced each year, coffee grounds are an abundant — and usually waste — by product.  An article on the American Chemical Society’s site explains why this waste product is actually a resource:

Photo by Flickr user stevendepolo, used with Creative Commons License.

Photo by Flickr user stevendepolo, used with Creative Commons License.

Spent coffee grounds contain between 11 and 20 percent oil by weight. That’s about as much as traditional biodiesel feedstocks such as rapeseed, palm, and soybean oil.

To verify it, the scientists collected spent coffee grounds from a multinational coffeehouse chain and separated the oil. They then used an inexpensive process to convert 100 percent of the oil into biodiesel.

For more information, see this article in The Economist or read about a similar project by Missouri University.

8. Humans

Several universities in Texas are bringing the renewable energy problem even closer than your morning cup of coffee, and finding ways of using students themselves to generate electricity for their campuses. Texas State University and the University of North Texas have both begun experimenting with capturing the kinetic energy from their student exercise facilities. A recent article in the Texas Tribune explains:

Photo by Flickr user Nick Harris1, used with Creative Commons License.

Photo by Flickr user Nick Harris1, used with Creative Commons License.

Electricity produced by exercising students is fed back into the campus electrical grid. The concept of using exercise equipment to generate power is fairly new; ReRev, a Florida-based company that partnered with Texas State and North Texas, has been in business for less than two years.

A 30-minute workout produces 50 watt hours of electricity, though ReRev spokeswoman Beth Bennion said that estimate was “very rough.” That amount of energy could power a fluorescent light bulb for about three hours or a laptop for about one hour, according to the U.S. Department of Energy. A student would have to exercise for about an hour and a half to keep a flat screen TV on for an hour.

Check out the ReRev website to learn more about the process.

9. Waves

Several companies have begun looking to the oceans to create renewable energy — the combined factors of little space available on land and constant sea breezes make offshore wind turbines an effective option. However, Oregon State University is taking ocean-power a step further, and harnessing the kinetic power of the waves themselves. An article by the National Science Foundation explains:

Photo by Flickr user silverxraven, used with Creative Commons License.

Photo by Flickr user silverxraven, used with Creative Commons License.

A float heaves up and down with the waves. Underneath the float is a magnet assembly, and as that magnet assembly heaves up and down, it creates a changing magnetic field. The coils in the spar experience that changing magnetic field and that induces voltage, and creates electricity.

The concept for a wave energy installation would be an array of these buoys. They would have a power takeoff cable going down to the sea floor, coming together at a central junction box. From that central junction box would be a sub-sea cable back to shore and onto the electrical grid.

To get a better understanding of how wave-generated energy works, check out this video at the National Science Foundation. To join the debate about how wave power may affect ecology and wildlife, head here to the discussion at debatepedia.

10. Lasers

Finally, in what might sound like something ripped from a science fiction novel, researchers at Osaka University in Japan have teamed up with the Japanese Aerospace Exploration Agency (JAXA) to attempt to create a satellite that will collect solar energy from space and beam it back to Earth via a powerful laser. A recent article on Treehugger.com explains:

Photo by Flickr user testone22, used with Creative Commons License.

Photo by Flickr user testone22, used with Creative Commons License.

The project seeks to put a prototype space-based power system in orbit — 22,400 mi (36,000 km) above the equator — with the goal of harnessing the sun’s energy to produce laser beams that would generate electricity or hydrogen on Earth through the intermediary of a terrestrial power station. The lasers — using plates built from a ceramic material containing chromium, which can absorb sunlight, and neodymium, which converts it into laser beams — outperformed earlier technologies four times over, demonstrating a solar-to-laser energy conversion efficiency of 42%.

The main advantage of using space-based power systems over terrestrial ones is that the former will not be subject to cloudy conditions or nighttime darkness, allowing them to collect solar energy 24 hours a day.

For more information on the project, check out this article at inhabitat.com or the JAXA website.