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The Morris wind turbine with cows in the foreground

The Morris wind turbine

Catching the wind

A recent symposium showed how wind energy, along with energy and chemicals from plant material, can ease the reliance on fossil fuels

By Deane Morrison

December 2, 2005

The Stone Age didn't end because we ran out of stone, and neither will the age of petroleum end when we run out of oil. It'll end a lot sooner, when high prices and pressing environmental concerns force the world to adopt new, cleaner technologies to replace old polluting ones. That point was one of many that Lanny Schmidt, Regents Professor of Chemical Engineering, made Wednesday afternoon to an energy-charged audience at "Renewable Energy--the Next Generation," the 2005 research symposium of the University's Initiative for Renewable Energy and the Environment (IREE). The gathering highlighted some of the research IREE has funded, with guests from outside the University offering perspectives on the future of biodegradable plastics and ethanol as a source of energy and useful chemicals. It also introduced some of the 24 multiyear projects, representing more than $8.5 million in funding, IREE awarded in 2005. These projects are designed to aggressively address some of the biggest obstacles in Minnesota's path to national leadership in renewable energy research and use.

"About 93 billion plastic bottles end up in landfills in the United States every year," said Zutler. Because most plastic on the market is derived from fossil fuels, "that's equivalent to 11.5 million barrels of oil, enough to fuel 400,000 vehicles a year."

In the "Renewable hydrogen for the farm" project, Schmidt and several colleagues are making use of the new wind turbine on the University's West Central Research and Outreach Center in Morris. The Morris campus gets at least half its electricity from the turbine, but the wind can be harnessed for other purposes. For one thing, wind energy can be turned into electricity to produce hydrogen from water. Combine that hydrogen with nitrogen from the air, and you get ammonia, a constituent of fertilizer. Making fertilizer on the farm with wind energy would have the double benefit of not using fossil fuels to make the ammonia and not transporting it long distances from manufacturer to user. Or, if you burn the hydrogen in a fuel cell, you get electricity. "There's no shortage of hydrogen," said Schmidt. Fuel cells have the potential to be six times as efficient as an average car engine, and someday the technology may allow houses to be heated by a fuel cell the size of a coffee cup. The key, Schmidt emphasized, is "downscaling." Instead of creating technologies that must be scaled up and run by huge plants far removed from consumers, it's better "to expand and modify local solutions for the world." Given the speed with which Schmidt moved through his ideas and his slides, it's a wonder no one has hooked him up to a turbine. Another focus of research is the use of biomass (plant material) as a source of ethanol and other chemicals that could replace fossil fuels. Biodiesel, which is similar to ordinary diesel fuel, can be made from biomass. So can hydrogen and the building blocks of plastics. In his keynote address, Gov. Tim Pawlenty decried the United States' addiction to fossil fuels. But he pointed to many points of pride for the state of Minnesota, including its mandate for 10 percent ethanol in gasoline and a new $60 million biomass facility in Benson that runs on turkey manure. "I hope the 'U' will put down a marker and say that among the limited number of things we're going to be world-class in are biofuels and renewable energy," said Pawlenty, a University alumnus. He also called on oil companies to channel some of their recent profits into renewable energy research and development - but he's not holding his breath. Working with IREE are many companies, including Colorado's BIOTA Spring Water. Its founder and CEO, David Zutler, spoke of how he has started bottling the water in bottles made from poly-lactic acid, or PLA, a derivative of cornstarch that was developed by University alumnus Patrick Gruber. "About 93 billion plastic bottles end up in landfills in the United States every year," said Zutler. Because most plastic on the market is derived from fossil fuels, "that's equivalent to 11.5 million barrels of oil, enough to fuel 400,000 vehicles a year." Zutler expressed the hope that more bottlers will move to PLA, which readily decomposes in the environment. Several IREE projects concern the economics and policy issues surrounding renewable energy. Steve Taff, a member of the applied economics faculty, said in his talk that reducing greenhouse gas emissions is neither a technical issue (we have the ability to decrease carbon dioxide emissions and still meet energy demand) nor an economic issue (most technologies are about the same cost). Instead, he said, it's a timing issue. He pointed out that once a power plant is built, we're stuck with it and its emissions for the next 25 years. Unless we act aggressively and soon to counteract this practice, we won't meet regional goals for emissions reduction, said Taff. "Wisconsin is even now commissioning several pulverized coal plants [which increase greenhouse emissions]," he said. A transcript of Pawlenty's talk and PowerPoints from the symposium will be posted next week on the IREE Web site. IREE is part of President Bruininks' Initiative on the Environment and Renewable Energy.