WEST LAFAYETTE, Ind. (WLFI) — Purdue University will partner with the U.S. Navy to make new biofuels, including some made entirely from plants. Developing the new fuel is at the center of a statement of cooperation signed May 8 by Purdue President Mitch Daniels and Secretary of the U.S. Navy Ray Mabus.
“You can go to the gas station and buy blends of gasoline and ethanol that are ten percent ethanol,” said Purdue professor of Agricultural and Biological Engineering Nate Mosier. “We’re working to make fuels that are 100 percent bio-based and work in existing engines.”
For years, the U.S. Navy has taken steps to address the risk that comes with a dependency on fossil fuels, such as gasoline and diesel. In 2012, petroleum accounted for 57 percent of the Navy’s energy. That same year, one percent came from renewable sources. By 2020, the Navy wants 50 percent of its energy to come from renewable materials. The Navy’s move toward renewable energy is above all about security.
“It’s a vulnerability for us,” Mabus said after the Purdue agreement was announced. “As I said in my talk, we’re doing this to be better war fighters and that’s how we’re going to benefit [from Purdue].”
The Purdue effort involves a team of chemists, biologists and engineers. Together, they hope to use parts of plants typically ignored when making fuel or food. The parts are called lignin. Researchers hope it will be the basis for the Navy’s newest aviation and marine fuel.
Fuel can be made from a variety of plant lignin. For example, Purdue tests eucalyptus wood and leftover corn materials.
“We’ve developed a process to convert woody biomass into high value chemicals,” said Ian Klein, a graduate student working in one of Purdue’s chemistry labs. Lignin has more carbon than the carbohydrates used to make ethanol, giving it the potential to store more energy than other biofuels.
“That lignin — those support beams that hold the plant together — are a significant percentage of the carbon and the energy in the biomass,” said Mahdi Abu-Omar, a Purdue chemistry professor.
Despite the high potential for lignin-based fuel, there are barriers the Purdue team must overcome. High cost and a lengthy regulatory process delay Navy approval. Also, hundreds of gallons of fuel are required to test it at Purdue University Airport. The school is still years away from making that amount, according to Aeronautical Engineering professor David Stanley.
The Purdue team acknowledged the challenges in cost and scale, but it is excited to have the Navy interested in its research. Secretary Mabus said the Navy has always been on the forefront of technological innovation, and that he hopes to continue that trend with Purdue.
“The Navy has always been at the forefront of energy development,” said Stanley. “They have always pushed ahead.”