A grassy field is more than stalks and roots to Dr. Mark Downing. It represents energy for cars and homes.
The Oak Ridge National Laboratory researcher has spent more than a decade looking at how to raise switch grass, which grows wild across the United States, as an energy crop for fuel.
"We know how to do it, and we have the farming and manufacturing infrastructure in place," said Downing, who also works with switch grass research at the University of Tennessee. "But cost is the barrier. We need to reduce the cost and increase the efficiency as well."
Researchers at colleges such as the University of Tennessee, the University of Georgia and University of Tennessee at Chattanooga are using everything from hydrogen to chicken fat to produce energy. But the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks and high gasoline prices have made the findings more relevant than ever. In his State of the Union speech, President Bush promised more money for clean-energy research, specifically naming switch grass as a method for producing fuel.
80 million acres available?
With stepped-up efforts to improve technology and reduce production costs, researchers estimate their work could be available at the pump in six to eight years. Downing estimates that the United States has up to 80 million acres of unused land that could be cultivated for energy crops such as switch grass.
Still, much of that hinges on companies opening biorefineries, none of which exist in the United States yet, Downing said. Canada has one that is used for research and testing, he said.
Already E85, a fuel that is 85 percent ethanol produced from corn, is popular at gas stations throughout the Midwest, but researchers say it's important to diversify what resources are used to produce the fuel.
In addition to biofuel research, universities such as UT and UTC are exploring ways to make the production of hydrogen fuel more affordable.
Researchers at the UTC Sim-Center are working on a fuel cell that runs on natural gas and produces electricity and hydrogen. The cell, which is a ceramic machine the size and shape of a loaf of bread, is housed at the SimCenter, an engineering research center on M.L. King Boulevard.
Dr. Jimmy Mays at UT said his lab is looking at more efficient and affordable ways to produce and store hydrogen for fuel. That includes how to make parts of hydrogen fuel cells more durable and how to use less-expensive materials, he said.
The country likely will see a big push in coming years for photovoltaic production of electricity, which gathers sunlight into solar panels and turns the beams into power, Mays said. The key is to use a combination of resources rather than depending on one type of alternative fuel, he said.
"You can't say there's one alternative energy source to meet our energy needs," Mays said.
At UGA, researchers are working on a way to harvest waste from the agricultural industry and turn it into fuel. For example, the state has the largest commercial forest crop in the country, an industry that produces trees as well as brush and bushes.
"Everything ratcheted up after 9-11," said Dr. Tom Adams, director of UGA's engineering outreach service. "Everybody here feels with every barrel of oil, a portion of what we pay for that oil is going to fund terrorists. We feel it's absolutely necessary to do this."
Adams said the trees are harvested but the rest, called the understory, is bulldozed and never used. That's why UGA researchers are working to design equipment that would harvest the understory and convert it into fuel and fertilizer, he said.
Researchers also are looking at developing byproducts from the bakery industry, sweet potatoes and sorghum into ethanol, which typically has been made from corn. They also are trying to convert soybeans, peanuts and canola oil into biodiesel fuel.
The Rome, Ga.,-based U.S. Biofuels, which UGA researchers helped get off the ground, produces 3 million gallons of biofuels a year from chicken fat. Other biofuel plants are considering locating in Georgia, Adams said.
The campus is building an ethanol plant that would produce fuel for the university's vehicles, he said.
"We eventually want to get rid of as much petroleum as possible," he said. "We want to convert biological fuels into heat and hot water for dorms."
Billion ton potential for biomass
Dr. Jonathan Mielenz, the biomass program manager for Oak Ridge National Laboratory, said a new study by the lab shows that the country has the potential of up to 1 billion tons of biomass, or plant-derived material, available. Though corn typically is used to make ethanol, there isn't enough corn in the United States to produce the amount of gasoline needed, he said.
Oak Ridge National Laboratory is working on a microorganism that can speed up the process of breaking down plants into ethanol, he said.
"The new organism will make the process go more quickly but also reduce the cost," Mielenz said.