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ODU Researchers Write the Book on Energy from Biomass

James W. Lee

James W. Lee

Researchers at Old Dominion University who have been active in the biodiesel development efforts of the university and of the Virginia Coastal Energy Research Consortium (VCERC) are primary authors of the new, comprehensive textbook "Advanced Biofuels and Bioproducts."

James Weifu Lee, the assistant director of VCERC and an associate professor in ODU's Department of Chemistry and Biochemistry, is the editor of the book. He also authored or co-authored seven of its 40 chapters. VCERC, a collaborative effort involving nine universities in the state as well as government and industry partners, is headquartered at ODU.

Jingdong Mao, associate professor of chemistry and biochemistry at ODU, is the lead author of another chapter in the book, and yet another is the work of four people involved in ODU's and VCERC's biodiesel project: Adair Johnson (lead author), a research associate; Patrick Hatcher, ODU's Batten Endowed Professor of Physical Sciences and director of VCERC; Zhanfei Liu, a former ODU postdoctoral associate in chemistry and biochemistry; and Elodie Salmon, a research assistant professor. Sandeep Kumar, ODU assistant professor of civil and environmental engineering is the author for another chapter, "Sub- and Supercritical Water Technology for Biofuels."

Lee said the book's publisher, Springer, approached him with an idea about an alternative-energy book soon after Springer released Lee's first book project, "Micro and Nano Technologies in Bioanalysis," in 2009. He and the publisher quickly agreed on the scope of the book, he said, "since energy and the environment are such a huge and urgent issue to human civilization."

He started working on the book in 2010 not long before he joined ODU in 2011. "I invited nearly 100 authors across the world to work with me on the project," Lee said.

The book's chapters are grouped under the headings: 1) Introduction and Brazil's Biofuel Success; 2) Smokeless Biomass Pyrolysis for Advanced Biofuels Production and Global Biochar Carbon Sequestration; 3) Cellulosic Biofuels; 4) Photobiological Production of Advanced Biofuels with Synthetic Biology; 5) Lipids-Based Biodiesels; 6) Life-Cycle Energy and Economics Analysis; 7) High-Value Algal Products and Biomethane; and 8) Electrofuels.

Lee contributed the introduction, "An Overview of Advanced Biofuels," and other chapters in parts 2 and 4. Several of his chapters explore ways to employ smokeless biomass pyrolysis and biochar soil amendment applications as an arsenal to control climate change. Others focus on "designer algae" and synthetic biology for photobiological production of advanced biofuels such as butanol from carbon dioxide and water.

Mao's chapter in part 2 reflects his expertise in nuclear magnetic resonance spectroscopy and his work analyzing the biochars that are a byproduct of the conversion of biomass - by means of heat and pressure - into fuels. The chemical composition of biochars makes them useful as soil amendment fertilizers.

Kumar's chapter in part 2 highlights the importance of green chemistry in developing alternative fuels from biomass. The chapter describes the application and current status of sub- and supercritical water (collectively called hydrothermal) technology for liquid fuels (bioethanol, biocrude), gaseous fuels (methane, hydrogen, synthesis gas), and solid fuels (biochar, other functional carbonaceous materials) production from biomass.

Hatcher group's article in part 4 - essentially an overview of the algae project at ODU over the last five years - is titled "One-Step Conversion of Algal Biomass to Biodiesel with Formation of an Algal Char as Potential Fertilizer."

Hatcher and his colleagues have developed and patented a one-step conversion of dried algae to biodiesel fuel, and the university has a joint venture agreement with the Virginia Beach-based Nutrients PLUS "green" fertilizer company to try to produce and market algae-fortified fertilizers.

ODU opened an algal farm with a one-acre algae pond in 2008 about 70 miles west of Norfolk near Hopewell, Va. In 2010 a $700,000 horizontal wiped film evaporator known as the "Algaenator" was placed adjacent to the specially designed growing pond to produce biodiesel. Work at the farm continues today to perfect a continuous process to convert algae into a liquid fuel. (Algae that died, sank to the ocean's floor and were covered by sediments millions of years ago were converted in much the same way - by heat and pressure - into the fossil fuels we use today.)