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UC, Canadian schools compare notes on energy

By Dave Jones on March 23, 2007 in University

From oil sands to algae farms, from the birth of polymer-zeolite nanocomposite membranes to surviving a business startup's Valley of Death, there was a vast amount of lively energy discussed and expended at a recent UC and Canada workshop in Davis.

UC Davis Vice Chancellor for Research Barry Klein hosted the Energy Collaboration Workshop, one in a series of meetings intended to foster research partnerships between the California and Canadian university systems.

The March 8-9 energy workshop brought together 18 scientists from Canada (National Research Council Canada, McGill University, and the universities of Alberta, British Columbia and Victoria) and 40 from California (UC Davis, five other UC campuses and the Office of the President). The speakers explored three key areas: biomass and biofuels, fuel cells and hydrogen storage, and socioeconomic issues.

The biomass-biofuels session began with UC Davis Professor Bryan Jenkins' rapid overview of the many multimillion-dollar research programs in California either already under way or being jump-started by political concerns about energy independence and national security.

"I got involved in this field after the oil embargo of 1973," said Jenkins, who is co-director of the UC Davis Bioenergy Research Group, or BERG, and executive director of the California Biomass Collaborative. "That was the first energy shock in my experience — but not the last." BERG connects UC Davis researchers in projects advancing bioenergy — making heat, power and fuels from plant and animal materials. The Biomass Collaborative coordinates industry, government, academic and environmental groups' work on biomass management and use in California.

UC San Diego engineering professor Kal Seshadri described the abilities of biodiesel vehicle fuel, made from plant oils and animal fats, to give comparable mileage with fewer greenhouse gas emissions.

Ruihong Zhang, a UC Davis biological and agricultural engineering professor, detailed the Biogas Energy Project, in which restaurant and food-processing leftovers are being turned into methane and hydrogen gases. A Canadian scientist suggested that Zhang might be interested in his studies using enzyme technology to "predigest" raw materials.

Zhang's description of the problems with turning crops and garbage ("feedstocks") into fuels left no doubt that there are enough scientific challenges here to keep the scientists of two major university systems busy: "We are faced with issues of collection, preservation and storage of highly degradable, seasonal feedstocks," she said.

Michael Ngadi, associate professor of food processing engineering at McGill University, elaborated on that point, exploring the complexities of "engineering biomass gathering and conversion" — that is, simply getting plant materials in good condition from a farm to a processing plant.

Ngadi showed photos of a prototype harvester designed to pick up corn stalks and leaves after ears are collected, noting, "We don't even have the machinery yet to bring this material in from the field."

He also described his research into making such plant residues ready for transportation to a fuel-making facility — preparations that include dehydrating, grinding, washing, rinsing and squeezing the material into compact pellets.

Next, economists and social scientists discussed the challenges that remain in drafting and implementing new energy strategies after the production obstacles are hurdled. People do not adopt new ideas as readily as might be expected, they said, even if the ideas seem to help solve public crises, such as national security or global climate change.

Economics professor David Ryan of the University of Alberta described his finding that Canadians' household energy use did not always decline after they were given programmable thermostats: "We do not see what you would expect."

Robert Arnot, assistant director of National Research Council Canada's Energy Technology Policy Directorate, concluded: "There's a lot of reasons why humans behave the way they do, and it's not always a matter of economics."

The next Canada-UC energy workshop is set for June 23 in Edmonton, Alberta. Details of the March 8-9 Davis workshop are due to be posted soon on the Office of Research's Web site: www.research.ucdavis.edu.

The UC-Canada collaborations program comprises five research emphases: energy, infectious disease, nanotechnology, stem cells and high-performance computing. For more information, contact the campus Office of Research.

Media contact(s)

Dave Jones, Dateline, 530-752-6556, dljones@ucdavis.edu

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