Renewable Enthusiasm

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Georgia Southern is offering leadership and looking ahead to the future on energy-related issues in a move toward energy independence and self-sufficiency with a focus on renewable energy and environmental science research.

“In 2009, a task force of faculty developed recommendations for the development of interdisciplinary research themes in the College,” said Bret Danilowicz, dean of the Allen E. Paulson College of Science and Technology. “Their recommendations were approved by the faculty as a whole in May 2009. The four themes are coastal plain science, computational science, green construction, and renewable energy.

“New faculty hiring within the College will be aligned to support the development of these research themes,” said Danilowicz, “and it is expected the College will become regionally then nationally recognized for the research being conducted in these themes.”

The fostering of this research focus has been met with fantastic support, he said. The State of Georgia established and funded an Endowed Chair of Renewable Energy at Georgia Southern, and biofuel facilities in the state are converting Georgia-grown agricultural products into marketable fuel.

These efforts, along with other initiatives at Georgia’s public universities, will contribute to long-term fuel stability within the state. Equally important, these steps reduce Georgia’s dependence on foreign petroleum sources.

Becoming a regional center

Georgia Southern University’s former president Bruce Grube enhanced the renewable energy initiative by signing the American College and University Presidents’ Climate Commitment to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and to accelerate research and education to become climate-neutral.

To this end, Georgia Southern plans to become a regional center for renewable energy sciences with an emphasis in application. Renewable energy encompasses power generation using a variety of ongoing natural processes including solar power, wind power, wave power, flowing water (hydropower), biological processes such as anaerobic digestion, and geothermal heat flow. All of these natural processes result in energy that is replaced at a rate equal to or faster than the rate at which that resource is being consumed.

The effects of these research themes and future growth on campus are also intertwined. Renewable energy sources, like solar panels, are being built into the design of future buildings on campus, including the proposed biological sciences building.

Chair of Renewable Energy Valentin Soloiu is involving faculty and students in research in this field. The research team will identify renewable sources of energy in south Georgia and design and evaluate products to capture the energy in a useable form for commercial or residential use in the region.

The research team, under Soloiu’s direction, will also assist regional industries in energy consumption analysis, appropriate strategies for conservation of energy, and preservation of our environments. In addition to creating a regional repository of technology that showcases renewable energy application, these activities will help advance the State of Georgia and the region through the benefits of higher education.

Faculty, students collaborate

The newly established Renewable Energy Laboratory is conducting research in the formulation, generation, transfer and combustion of biofuels. This laboratory combines multiple disciplines and faculty at the University, including biology, chemistry and engineering, to address the production requirements for a viable energy substitute from organic materials.

Current areas of research interest in the laboratory include advanced combustion technologies, homogeneous charge compression ignition and low temperature combustion, advanced laser diagnostics, spray dynamics, mixture formation, smart engines control strategies, and engine tribology – the study and application of friction. The most significant research in the lab’s first year was the conversion of a small engine to a fuel-injected engine capable of using 100 percent ethanol.

Engineering students are now able to conduct research on how to run engines efficiently with low particulate and nitrogen emissions using fuels made from renewable biofuels, including novel ones derived from non-food sources such as acorns and pine trees.
The College is also home to the Center for Sustainability, led by biology professor Lissa Leege. The Center has provided two Sustainability Incentive Grants to the Renewable Energy Lab targeted at the development of novel biofuels, and the use of those fuels in local farm equipment.

In the chemistry department, a number of faculty are conducting research which supports this theme. Notably, the Department has many undergraduate students involved with this research, preparing those students for careers in the rapidly expanding renewable energy field. Understanding and optimizing the chemical reactions that produce biofuels, and discovering new and improved ways to produce those fuels from a number of different starting materials, is researched by professor David Kreller’s team.

“The chemistry department is in a good position to support the biodiesel formulation efforts of the engineering technology department as well as undertake our own research toward resolving some of the fundamental unanswered questions in the area of the chemical reactions through which biodiesel is produced,” said Kreller.

Chemistry professor Shannon Davis and her research team are investigating the development and use of novel catalysts to improve the chemical reactions involved in converting biomass to biofuels, and professor Norman Schmidt analyzes biodiesel profiles using gas chromatography.

According to Soloiu, the lab has an effect on both the environment and the students.
“What is very special about the lab is that it is very comprehensive. A different level of responsibility comes with working in a research lab. The students develop a new mentality toward the environment,” Soloiu said.

Driving new programs

The newest addition to the lab, a Dieselmax engine, was recently donated by JCB Inc., one of the world’s leading manufacturers of heavy equipment. The same engine was used in the vehicle that set the land speed record for diesel-powered cars at 350 mph at the Bonneville Salt Flats in 2006. Georgia Southern students are using the engine to research biodiesel and other biofuels combustion emissions.

“This partnership provides tremendous opportunities for undergraduate and graduate students and Georgia Southern faculty to participate in real-world applied research that can provide local economic benefits to the region,” said Danilowicz.

The next generation of students graduating from Georgia Southern’s Department of Mechanical and Electrical Engineering Technology will be educated in renewable energy technology both at graduate and undergraduate levels. This will allow for a range of specialty courses within the major, the development of a core-satisfying environmental science laboratory course, and a Master of Science degree in applied engineering with a renewable energy emphasis.

“We have already added courses in renewable energy to the undergraduate Mechanical Engineering Technology program as well as at the graduate level to the Master of Science in Applied Engineering Program,” said Mohammed Davoud, chair of the Department of Mechanical and Electrical Engineering Technology.

The faculty of the Department of Mechanical and Electrical Engineering Technology are also involved in research related to solar and wind energy. Several undergraduate and graduate students under the supervision of professor Mosfeque Rahman are currently involved in design and development of a low-cost, affordable wind turbine that can be utilized for residential power generations.

With the Renewable Energy Lab nearing completion, the future looks bright, not just for the region and the environment, but for the countless students who will have the opportunity to conduct applied research.

— Marla Bruner

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