The effort to achieve energy independence has come to the University of Wisconsin-Superior, where scientists are seeking ways to turn plants from northern regions into an affordable, high-quality fuel.

Fuels derived from plants - so-called bio-fuels - could hold the key to the United States reducing its reliance on foreign oil. At UW-Superior, scientists from the university and American Science and Technology Corp. are using $3.75 million in federal research funding in a collaborative multi-year effort to develop a sustainable production process for bio-based JP-8 jet fuel that burns cleanly and easily at low temperatures.

Currently, commercial bio-fuels are produced by a multi-step process that makes them comparatively expensive. These bio-fuels have low energy density and flow sluggishly at low temperatures, which makes them ill-suited for military use.

The research at UW-Superior is aimed at developing manufacturing technologies that can produce bio-JP8 fuel from domestic resources. The scientists are analyzing plants from northern Wisconsin and northern Minnesota to determine whether the properties that enable plants to survive the region's winter temperatures make them suitable for creating bio-fuels that perform well at low temperature.

Researchers focus on three elements

The AST and UW-Superior scientific team is focusing on three elements of research. First, to develop a chemical catalyst that can convert vegetable oil into a high-energy-density bio-fuel. Second, to create a genetically engineered bacterium that can break down the carbohydrate chain of vegetable oil to produce a liquid form of bio-fuel with better properties than current bio-fuels. And third, to identify the best high-yield oil seed that can be grown in northern Wisconsin.
Among the UW-Superior scientists, chemist Dr. Jim Lane is studying ways to use enzymes to convert vegetable oils to bio-fuel. Chemistry professor Dr. Michael Waxman, is examining the phase transformations of methyl esters of unsaturated fatty acids - components of bio-fuel that improve its low-temperature characteristics.

In addition, biology professor Dr. Ralph Seelke and Dan Levings, research specialist from the Lake Superior Research Institute at UW-Superior, are studying microbial processes that could aid in converting plants to fuels. LSRI scientist Tom Markee is analyzing research data and Paul Hlina is identifying and collecting potentially useful plants.

AST scientists working on campus

Chicago-based AST, directed by company president Dr. Ali Manesh, has four scientists working on the UW-Superior campus: Dr. Nader Enayati, Dr. Amir Fattahian, Dr. Donghua Zuo, and Dr. Usha Varanasi.

Enayati, bio-fuel project manager for AST, said the company's scientists are working on parallel tracks with the UW-Superior scientists to develop enzymes and chemical catalysts.

AST, a small company headquartered in Chicago and with offices in Brookings, S.D., Charlestown, W.V., and both Wausau and Superior in Wisconsin, serves as a foundation for future energy. Through partnerships with various universities, AST identifies and introduces potential opportunities with relevance to both renewable energy and national security to various branches of the Department of Defense. Drawing on experience in the business sector, AST is also developing manufacturing plants capable of producing the potential products for both government and commercial applications.

AST focuses on energy research

Founded in 2003, AST aims its research and development activities toward achieving national security through energy independence. Working with the U. S. Army Research Lab, AST determined that developing a sustainable and reliable source of aviation fuel, or JP-8, would help address one of the Army's most critical problems.

To create a sustainable, domestic, renewable form of JP-8, AST turned to UW-Superior for help because it has strong programs in biology and chemistry, and because its Lake Superior Research Institute has experiences in large-scale research and development.

 In 2006, AST and UW-Superior created an initial research and development team comprised of scientists from both organizations. The following year AST provided capital for the UW-Superior to start a research project based on the heat transfer of select bio-chemical compounds.

The research team has identified that a biologically based JP-8 derived from plants indigenous to northern Wisconsin potentially can display many of the same properties as current JP-8 fuel.

The Army Research Lab and the Department of Defense have agreed to grant the team additional funding so it can continue its work. AST also has generated partnerships with the UW-Stevens Point, UW-Madison, and Argonne National Laboratory near Chicago, which also are participating in this project.

Students benefit from research

Several UW-Superior students also are involved in the project, gaining research experience and using state-of-the -art equipment purchased for the project. "This is a project that students will really enjoy working on since it has direct applications to some major issues our country if facing right now," Lane said.

Funding for the bio-fuels research was requested by U.S. Rep. Dave Obey and approved by Congress. The funding is administered through the LSRI under the direction of Dr. Mary Balcer.

UW-Superior ranks third among UW System campuses in the amount of federal research money received.

"Teaching and research are part of what defines being a faculty member, and our professors' research is often an extension of their teaching," said Vice Chancellor and Provost Dr. Christopher Markwood. "At UW-Superior, involving our students in research enhances their learning experience and enhances the mentoring relationship our faculty members have with students. We live in a knowledge-based globaleconomy. As a result of an expanding wealth of information, the need for students to develop their research skills is increasingly important -- regardless of their major."

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Scientists from UW-Superior and American Science and Technology Corp. are working collaboratively on a multi-year, multi-million-dollar project to develop a sustainable production process for bio-based JP-8 jet fuel that burns cleanly and easily at low temperatures. Among the researchers in the university's Barstow Hall are, from left, Dr. Amir Fattahian of AST; Juliann Morinville, a recent UW-Superior graduate working for AST; Tom Markee of UW-Superior; Dr. Donghua Zuo of AST; Dr. Michael Waxman of UW-Superior; and Dr. Usha Varanasi of AST.