A new $1.8 million project with the Department of Energy (DOE)—led by chemistry professor Steven Suib—will develop new biofuel sources, catalysts, and reactors that would be suitable for the Northeast.

The goal of the interdisciplinary project is to develop the technology to the stage where it could be transferred to small biofuel businesses that would use locally available resources for fuel.

This would eliminate one major cost associated with biofuels: transporting the raw biomaterial to the site of the plant. By developing new catalysts that can be used with different types of biofuels, and by testing pilot plants (specifically a new fuel source of rapid-growth poplar trees would thrive in this climate), the UConn researchers will demonstrate how bioenergy technology could be important in the Northeast region of the U.S.

Connecticut alone has 8 million square feet of greenhouses that generate $1 billion in sales annually. If the greenhouses generated their heat through direct combustion of a locally produced wood such as poplar, it would reduce fossil fuel consumption by at least 10 million gallons per year in the state.

The project involves five faculty researchers, including Steven Suib, who is developing catalysts that can be tailored to different types of biofuel operations. Among other problems, the liquid-based catalysts that are now often used are hard to separate from the product, Suib says. His lab is developing solid catalysts that won’t leach into the solution and that are stable, relatively cheap, and induce a high rate of reaction. They can be tailored to work best with the particular type of biofuel that is used – vegetable oil or plant materials, for example.

The project was contracted with the DOE in September for one year but may be extended an additional year. Suib and Richard Parnas, professor in the Institute of Materials Science and in the Department of Chemical, Materials, and Biomolecular Engineering, have visited biofuel plants in Connecticut, New Jersey, Rhode Island, and Cape Cod. “There is a lot of interest in the technology among small manufacturers,” says Suib. “They use a variety of fuels, all requiring different catalysts and different processes.” -Article adapted from UConn Today