EKU-General Atomics Partnership to Boost Sustainable Biofuel Production in Kentucky

Researchers will examine potential for cellulose-derived biofuel industry in Bluegrass State

A partnership between Eastern Kentucky University and General Atomics, announced at a news conference at the State Capitol here today, could provide the basis for a new and sustainable fuel production industry in Kentucky and ultimately have a global impact, officials said.

With the establishment of the Eastern Kentucky University Center for Renewable and Alternative Fuel Technologies (CRAFT), researchers will examine the potential for a cellulose-derived biodiesel industry in Kentucky.

By using algae techniques to process cellulosic materials that are available in Kentucky, the project offers both a technological underpinning for sustainable fuel production and a technology that could benefit agriculture in Kentucky.

General Atomics, headquartered in San Diego, Calif., was founded in 1955 and specializes in diversified research, development and manufacturing in defense, energy and other advanced technologies. Affiliated manufacturing and commercial service companies include General Atomics Aeronautical Systems, Inc., which produces the Predator® family of UAVs.

EKU President Doug Whitlock said: "Kentucky's current economic situation makes this a critical time for the initiation of such a project. President-Elect Obama has made it clear that the development of alternative energy will be a centerpiece of his economic plan.

"The efforts of Congressman Ben Chandler and Governor Steve Beshear have made possible our partnership with General Atomics. This partnership links Kentucky and EKU with an international business leader that is turning its focus and considerable resources to biomass-to-fuel initiatives. This project is different in that it will be focused on production of biodiesel and ultimately bio jet fuel using non-food cellulosic materials in a process that will utilize algae to convert the biomass into bio-oils. The research at EKU will determine both the optimal 'recipe' of cellulosic material and the economic feasibility of the project."

Whitlock said the project is "important to Kentucky's farmers looking for cash crops to replace tobacco, to the Commonwealth's carbon footprint, and for making Kentucky a leader in an emergent technology.

"Kentucky is most fortunate to have Congressman Chandler and Governor Beshear, whose combined visionary leadership support alternative energy technologies that will ultimately drive much of the nation's economic future."

Recognizing the progress already made on alternative energies at other educational institutions statewide, Whitlock said the EKU Center will pursue opportunities to develop collaborative relationships with other colleges and universities.

Much of the initial funding for this project was contained in H.R. 2638, the Consolidated Security, Disaster Assistance, and Continuing Appropriations Act of 2009 which became law on September 30, 2008.

"I am thrilled that I was able to secure $4 million of federal money to make alternative fuel production in Kentucky a realitycreating jobs, and giving Kentucky, especially Eastern Kentucky University, the opportunity to be a national leader in the field," Chandler said. "It has been extremely rewarding working with General Atomics, President Doug Whitlock, my longtime friend, Vice President Harry Moberly. I look forward to working with Governor Beshear to ensure the long-term success of this innovative research project. I applaud the Governor's focus on biofuels and his commitment to alternative fuels."

Beshear said: "It is vital that we examine innovative, long-term solutions to the energy issues we face. Due in part to our fertile farms, Kentucky has the ability to greatly contribute to the research and development of alternative fuel sources. I am pleased that General Atomics sees as much potential in our state as President Whitlock and I do."

The study will focus on determining appropriate cellulosic feedstocks and defining a strategic plan for starting up an industry that will convert those feedstocks to biodiesel products, and describe the technologies required along with their developmental costs, risks and schedules. Research and development will be performed on key elements of the required technologies in order to quantify and mitigate risks. The work will be performed by a team comprised of EKU and General Atomics representatives, with EKU as prime contractor and General Atomics providing the technical lead.

According to Bill Davison, GA's vice president for the group doing biofuels development programs, "We are very excited by this opportunity to work together with EKU to develop and deploy a technology that we believe has great economic, environmental and strategic potential."

Cellulose-derived biodiesel process systems design and modeling, to be led by General Atomics, will define the conceptual design for the overall cellulose-derived biodiesel processing plant and establish an economic model for the processing plant to be used for guiding the developmental work.

Agricultural and economics modeling research led by EKU, will identify and develop baseline agricultural and economics data. The work will include: a) the prioritization of agricultural crops that would make good feedstock for the production of bio-oils, b) the identification of land that could be cultivated without negatively impacting existing agricultural businesses, c) the determination of potential/probable crop yields, d) the identification of the economic impacts on the Commonwealth's agricultural, transportation, and biofuels industries, and e) the determination of transition scenarios for moving toward a biofuel industry in the Commonwealth. Co-products will also be evaluated during this process systems and modeling phase.

General Atomics will provide input on the biofuel conversion costs and issues of various cellulosic feedstocks to be studied. The result will be a technical report covering biofuel crop feedstocks in Kentucky and an economic impact model for this crop and biofuel industry.

Biomass survey research will be performed principally by EKU to assess the current and potential sources of biomass in the Commonwealth, including the economics and logistics of transportation to regional processing facilities. Types of biomass will include such sources as agricultural residues (corn stover), forestry wastes (such as saw dust, tree thinning, or pulp-mill residues), and purpose-grown crops for either marginal land (switch grass) or cropland (sorghum). The research will gather and archive representative samples for chemical analysis and laboratory-scale testing which will result in a technical report entitled "Assessment of the Economics, Transportation & Logistics of Biomass Utilization in Kentucky for BioFuels Production."

Cellulose conversion research will focus on conversion of cellulosic feedstocks to useable sugars. The task will primarily be performed by General Atomics. Evaluations of technologies for conversion of cellulosic materials to sugars will be performed to determine the best technologies to pursue. This work may include subcontracts to companies with unique processes that may be appropriate for this critical step. Existing strains of heterotrophic algae will be used to determine which cellulosic feedstocks provide the most suitable sugar sources.

A technical report will summarize the research and recommend the follow-up work required for development of a commercially viable cellulose-to-biodiesel production process.

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