The Sun Grant Initiative, funded through the departments of Agriculture, Defense, Energy and Transportation, promotes collaboration among researchers from land-grant institutions, government agencies and the private sector to develop and commercialize renewable, bio-based energy technologies. The proof-of-concept grants allow researchers to take their basic, exploratory work to the next level by proving their ideas work.

Through this work, Wei said he can improve the quality and the amount of the drop-in fuel that this process produces.

Wei and his co-investigator, professor Jim Julson in agricultural and biosystems engineering, have received $13,201 support from Thermo-Ag LLC, with the remainder of the nearly $53,000 in funds coming from Sun Grant. One doctoral student and one postdoc will be working on the project. Thermo-Ag works with thermo-chemical processing of agricultural residue to produce high value products, including bio-oil.

Current technologies use a chemical to extract the biofuel that damages the bacteria or yeast used to produce the fuel.

The project includes professor William Gibbons and associate professor Ruanbao Zhou, of the biology and microbiology department, who work with blue-green algae called cyanobacteria, which have been genetically engineered to produce drop-in fuel using only sunlight, carbon dioxide and water. According to Zhou, cyanobacteria factories can be built as additions to ethanol plants because they utilize the carbon dioxide emitted as a byproduct of ethanol production, an estimated 12.5 tons per second just in South Dakota.

Gu’s new alcohol-harvesting technique will work with both ethanol and cyanobacteria.

“We’re trying to keep the cell at a stable stage so biofuel continues to be released,” he explained.

Recycling will reduce the cost of production, Gu said, “because they don’t need to expend more nutrients to grow the cell again.”

Professor Kasiviswanathan Muthukumarappan from agricultural and bioprocessing engineering will help integrate the separation unit into a bioreactor. Two doctoral students will work on Gu’s project.

South Dakota Innovation Partners provided the 25 percent match for the grant that totals nearly $40,000. One of its portfolio companies, Cyanosun Energy, works with cyanobacteria and can benefit from Gu’s separation technologies.

On the electrical engineering side, Fan will use his expertise with electronic materials and devices to develop a more cost-effective means of storing renewable energy. Supercapacitors, an advanced means of storing electric energy, use expensive activated carbon as the electrodes. Fan will use biochar, a byproduct of Wei’s reactor, in place of activated carbon to reduce the cost of these storage devices.

Fan has developed a patent-pending method for depositing carbon film, which has been licensed to Applied Nanofilms LLC. The company’s lead research and development engineer, Braden Bills, said his firm invested in Fan’s project as part of its work to develop a platform technology for depositing nanoparticles on thin films for many applications.

“The amount of charge stored in a capacitor depends on the surface area,” Fan explained, “and the biochar nanoparticles can create an extremely large surface area which can then hold more charge.” The biochar coatings form the electrodes in the supercapacitor.

Once this work is completed, Fan and Gu will determine the energy-storing capacity of the resulting supercapacitor. Though the biochar device may not compete with other carbon materials in terms of storage capacity, its decreased cost will make it competitive in the marketplace, Gu explained.

By using biochar for energy storage, Fan said, “We’re trying to reduce carbon emission into the atmosphere.” One master’s degree student will work on this project.

These proof-of-concept grants will allow the researchers to show that their bio-based technologies have potential and merit a greater investment on the part of commercial entities to bring them to the marketplace.

Source: South Dakota State: