Gift Helps Biofuel Research at Virginia Tech
Professor John Cundiff, right, talks with Brian Duffy of Enterprise Rent-A-Car about how a gift made by that corporation's foundation will help biofuel research at the university
By Albert Raboteau
One day, biofuel plants may turn waste wood and switchgrass into ethanol, reducing the need for oil and creating a new energy industry that makes use of materials viewed as next to worthless today.
It's an exciting idea, but it's not without some signficant scientific hurdles. There are economic hurdles as well, and that's where Virginia Tech's John Cundiff hopes to make a difference.
He is developing machinery that could allow large loads of switchgrass to be transported from field to plant at reasonable cost, an essential link in the supply chain if that grass is to become a valuable source of energy. The Enterprise Rent-A-Car Foundation recently donated money to the university to help fund Cundiff's work.
The professor in the biological systems engineering department said corporate support is "just unbelievably helpful" as he works on a prototype frame that will allow bales of switch grass to be transported on the same trailers that accommodate shipping containers.
Standard baling equipment that is already used for hay can be used to collect switchgrass, Cundiff said, but because there is little demand for moving large shipments of hay, nobody has developed specialized equipment to move numerous bales at once.
Officials from Enterprise Rent-A-Car's group headquarters in Newport News, Va., recently traveled to the university to visit with Cundiff. Company officials said Cundiff's work appeals to them because it's in line with steps Enterprise is taking to benefit the environment. The private company's founding family has given millions to support renewable energy research.
According to the company, Enterprise, together with its subsidiaries National and Alamo, operates the world's largest fleet of FlexFuel vehicles -- cars or trucks that can run on a mixture of 85 percent ethanol and 15 percent gasoline.
"We have lot of cars on the road, of course, and we want to do what we can for the future," Brian Duffy, an Enterprise vice president, said during the gathering on campus.
For more than two decades, Cundiff has been researching the logistics of how a biofuel industry could work.
"These are the most exciting days that I have seen," he said. "People were just not ready to think about bioenergy in any significant way until the last couple of years. Oil prices are going up, up, up, up, and suddenly people say: 'What are the alternatives?'"
One promising alternative is cellulosic ethanol -- fuel from woody material and grasses that have little if any other value. Cundiff cited several advantages of using those materials, rather than corn, in ethanol production. They do not require as much effort to cultivate, and using them for fuel will have little impact on food prices.
Cundiff believes that the Southeastern United States, specifically the Piedmont area of Virginia, is the region that is best situated to produce cellulosic biofuel crops. Both trees and grasses thrive in the Southeast, but much of its land cannot produce grain and is less well suited to commercial agriculture than other regions. Cundiff envisions a day when owners of unproductive land in the Piedmont can grow switchgrass and provide it to biofuel plants.
One of his colleagues in the biological systems engineering department, Percival Zhang, has developed a cost-effective pretreatment process to make switchgrass a more viable source of fuel, but for the moment there are no commercial-scale facilities making cellulosic ethanol.
Before anyone invests in such a plant, they will want to make sure they can get a regular supply of raw material, said Cundiff, who is working to make that easier to accomplish.
"A bioenergy plant will operate 24-7," he said. "They cannot start up and shut down. They have to have a regular supply. They have to have a certain number of deliveries every week. That system has got to be in place."