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Alternative Energy Generates Optimism

Federal stimulus funding and university-led initiatives are making the southern u.s. states fertile ground for sustainable energy development.

  • Mark Crawford, Contributing Editor
Southern Tech Sites 2009
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Biomass Energy
Biomass is in high demand as an alternative power source, with more than $8 billion invested in R&D and infrastructure in 2008. Many of these advances are occurring in the South, where biomass materials - lumber mill waste, cellulose, and sugar cane waste - are abundant.

Florida Crystals in West Palm Beach, Florida, operates one of the largest renewable energy facilities in the world. Crop residue and urban wood waste are burned as fuel to generate renewable electricity. The company has partnered with the University of Florida and Florida International University to research how to produce cellulosic ethanol from sugar cane fiber and wood waste. Also in Florida, British Petroleum (BP) and Verenium Corporation are planning to build a $300 million cellulosic ethanol plant in Highlands County. BP will invest $122 million and Verenium and will receive a 50 percent stake in licensing the company's technology.

Georgia's Energy Innovation Center (EIC) is especially keen on biomass because of the state's abundance of pine forests, agricultural crops, and cellulose waste streams from agriculture and industrial processes. The EIC has worked closely with Range Fuels, a bioenergy company, to produce ethanol from cellulose. Range Fuels is building the nation's first commercial-scale cellulosic ethanol plant in Soperton, Georgia, with the help of an $80 million loan guarantee from the U.S. Department of Agriculture. When operational in mid-2010, the $100 million facility will use a special thermochemical process to convert biomass into biofuel.

Hydrogen Fuel Cells
Almost $200 million has been pledged through ARRA to fund hydrogen research programs. Georgia Tech recently pioneered the use of fuel cell technology in aviation and aerospace, a field long-neglected by hydrogen researchers. The research team successfully flew a hydrogen-powered unmanned aircraft using a fuel-cell system that generates only 500 watts. "That raises a lot of eyebrows," says Adam Broughton, a research engineer who is working on the project in Georgia Tech's Aerospace Systems Design Laboratory (ASDL). "Five hundred watts is plenty of power for a light bulb, but not for the propulsion system of an aircraft this size (22-foot wingspan)."

One of the biggest challenge with commercialization of fuel cell technology is that, so far, it relies on hydrogen as the fuel. Not only is hydrogen difficult and dangerous to store, most of it generated from the mining or consumption of fossil fuels. New research from the University of Virginia is utilizing nanoscale engineering to create "solar cells" that use sunlight to electrochemically split water into oxygen and hydrogen - which could potentially provide a practically limitless, renewable source of hydrogen. An advantage of these new "direct-hydrocarbon solid oxide fuel cells" is that they operate at much lower temperatures, making them more stable and longer-lasting.

Branko Popov, Ph.D., director of the Center of Electrochemical Engineering at the University of South Carolina, is developing new technology that reduces the need for platinum in fuel cells. Platinum is considered the best material for efficient reduction of oxygen in fuel cells, but is costly to mine and purchase, and has a high carbon footprint. Popov's team has developed a carbon composite catalyst process that reduces oxygen almost as efficiently as the best platinum/carbon catalysts, and produces the same amount of energy. "This research at the University of South Carolina is solving the challenges of hydrogen production, storage, and cost," says Shannon Baxter-Clemmons, Ph.D., executive director of the South Carolina Hydrogen and Fuel Cell Alliance. "These breakthroughs have the potential to make the hydrogen and fuel cell industry more affordable sooner."

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