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UL Lafayette researchers Ramalingam Subramaniam and Stephen Dufreche experiment with yeast grown on shrimp and sweet potato waste to produce biodesiel.

Researchers at UL are exploring a plethora of alternative energy models, but say economics will ultimately decide their fate.

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By Wynce Nolley

Many might not consider Lafayette, or Louisiana for that matter, to be an area on the vanguard of green energy with our economy so heavily tied to the petroleum industry. They would be wrong, as Lafayette is one of the leaders in green technology in the region and across the county, blazing an eco-friendly path toward renewable and sustainable alternative energy.

Our trailblazer is of course UL Lafayette, specifically its Bioprocessing Research Lab.

“Our underlying current of a lot of what we do is taking the philosophy, ‘Let’s look at what society throws away and see if we could reuse it as a feedstock for making chemicals or power,’” says Dr. Mark Zappi, dean of the UL College of Engineering and leader of this innovative team of more than 20 faculty members.

The lab is a multidisciplinary effort comprising engineers, chemists, biologists, economists and students from the university’s various colleges. It spans several facilities across campus and Acadiana all working to research and implement viable alternative energy sources. The lab’s research is running the gamut from utilizing the capacity for algae to produce biofuels to constructing a gasifier facility to implement several alternative energies to create its own power grid.

Algae is prized as a renewable energy source for its ability to produce high amounts of lipids, which are natural oils. It also leaves behind algal cake that has the potential to create other products, specifically building blocks for other chemicals. But according to Zappi, the lab’s research into turning algae into a viable alternative energy is peaking.

“Algae is at a real turning point,” he says. “It’s a technology that I think holds a lot of promise but is one that is not quite there. The economics have just not proven completely all the way at this point. In my mind it’s an advanced research project that’s not ready for primetime technology.”

The lab is also looking at extracting valuable oils for biofuels from yeast that is grown on sweet potatoes and rice.

“We’re also taking waste materials like sweet potatoes and we’re feeding them to yeast in this case,” says Zappi. “We’re also looking at taking sewage and other waste streams and growing bacteria again all for the idea of getting them fat and having a lot of oil in them.”

UL Engineering has also been working closely with CLECO on an alternative energy production facility in Acadia Parish Industrial Park. The $1.5 million gasifier facility is “99 percent complete,” according to Zappi, and is expected to open at the end of July. The facility will create synthesis gas, or syngas, a mixture of hydrogen, carbon monoxide and carbon dioxide created by burning feedstock materials like rice stalk hulls and sugarcane bagasse at high temperatures under low oxygen levels. Syngas can then be further processed to create electricity and diesel fuel. The facility will also feature torrefaction capabilities, where wood chips are heated to a point where they closely resemble coal.

One other energy the gasifier facility will explore is a solar-thermal technology. Two rows of 150-foot parabolic mirrors measuring 10 feet high will direct sunlight to heat fluids in a specialized pipe up to 2,000 degrees that transfers the heat to make steam. This process will be about half the cost of traditional photovoltaic solar panels.

Another project the lab has been working on is its research into refining alligator fat into fuel. According to a research paper it published in the science journal Industrial & Engineering Chemistry Research, roughly 15 million pounds of fat could become 1.25 million gallons of fuel with as much as 91 percent the energy content as petroleum diesel.

Zappi notes another energy source showing promise is renewable diesel, where waste oils are taken and then put directly in petroleum refineries to make the same chemical as petroleum diesel that contain renewable plant-based and animal-based sources.

“Those I think are the wave of the future where we can take our existing refining capacity but start putting in small percentages at first of renewable oils and plant-based oils and see how that goes over time,” adds Zappi. “I also think that getting waste streams growing bacteria high in oil and yeast and then putting that oil into refineries to make renewable diesel is getting close to being a reality and a mature process.”

But as promising as these green projects are, none is set to replace petroleum any time soon.

“I think we need a toolbox of all kinds of energy sources and let long-term economics decide which way we go,” says Zappi. “But we also have to keep in mind ecological impacts, too. About every alternative energy process right now is probably one technical breakthrough or two away from becoming more economically viable. It’s all about economics.”

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