FIU researchers trying to find way to produce fuel from sugar byproduct
By April M. Havens
Florida International University's Applied Research Center is working to develop biofuels from one of Florida's biggest crops and studying fossil fuels, environmental restoration and waste management for governmental agencies, officials say.
At the Applied Research Center, engineers, scientists and students offer practical solutions to environmental, energy, defense, waste management and water problems, said Richard Burton, director of business programs.
While providing mentoring for the university's engineering and environmental science students is the primary objective of the center, the center researches projects for numerous governmental and commercial agencies.
The center is teaming with Florida Crystals Corp., a Palm Beach County sugar company, to determine the feasibility of using a sugar-making byproduct as a feedstock for a large-scale bioenergy plant.
A $1.15 million state grant is aiding the project, which focuses on using a fibrous byproduct of the sugar-making process called bagasse to produce ethanol, Mr. Burton said. The Florida Department of Environmental Protection awarded the grant as part of the Florida Renewable Energy Technologies Grant Program.
The team's goal is to identify a pretreatment process that can cost-effectively convert sugarcane bagasse to ethanol. "We are enthusiastic about engaging in this collaborative project with FIU," said Alfonso Fanjul, chairman and CEO of Florida Crystals. "We hope this will enable us to develop cellulosic ethanol from our sugar cane that will reduce our dependence on foreign oil."
The Applied Research Center has existed as a standalone university-wide center for the past four years and employs 75 to 80 people with scientific and engineering skills ranging from nuclear engineering to conventional environmental issues, Mr. Burton said. The idea and basic practices of the center have existed in various forms for about 15 years.
The center works with federal agencies, state and local governments and commercial entities through needs-based contracts, he said. Clients include the US Air Force, Army Research Office, Missile Defense Agency, Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, National Reconnaissance Office and South Florida Water Management District.
The center addresses three major areas of study, the largest related to environmental issues, Mr. Burton said. "We often deal with issues of water resources and environmental restoration," he said.
The center's second area of study involves energy and renewable energy, such as biofuels. The third area focuses on projects for the US Department of Defense and US Department of Energy, specifically dealing with technology and energy science.
"Our biggest customers are the Department of Defense and the Department of Energy, and we have a fairly expansive interaction with the Department of Defense" Mr. Burton said.
In the past, the center worked with the Department of Defense to research commercial technologies and integrate them into systems to assist in emergency responses, he said.
Tom Welch, a spokesman for the US Department of Energy, said the department has enjoyed a "long and productive" relationship with the Applied Research Center for over a decade. The Applied Research Center is currently researching seven major projects for the department, for a total of $11.8 million. Four of those seven projects deal with renewable energy or fossil energy research and development, and others focus on environmental restoration and waste management.
Since all projects are needs-based, Mr. Burton said marketing isn't a major concern. "It's definitely reputation-based, and most of our business is repeat business," he said. A small percentage of business comes for competitive procurements.
There are five or six other Florida universities operating needs-based research units, Mr. Burton said, but the largest bulk of the Applied Research Center's competition is commercial.
Costs for each research project vary greatly, Mr. Burton said. "It's a very complex process, as most needs-based research is project related," he said.
"While program managers have a particular purview and problem in mind, there may be subcomponents in there that lend to the costs. Our activity tends to be based on the staffing and personnel it takes to perform the research."
The center's executive director position is currently open, and a national search has led to several candidates scheduled for interviews within the next month. Harlan Sands, the previous director, left to take a job at the University of Alabama in Birmingham, Mr. Burton said. Fernando Miralles-Wilhelm is serving as the interim director of research.