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University of Iowa News Release


July 23, 2010

Engineers receive $951,500 federal grant for UI green power initiative

A team of University of Iowa engineers is using a one-year, $951,500 U.S. Department of Energy grant to increase the amount of green energy produced at the UI's Oakdale Renewable Energy Plant and to develop a "UI Green Power Initiative" that can be used as a model program for other universities across the country.

Leading the project are Albert Ratner, assistant professor of mechanical and industrial engineering, and Ferman Milster, associate director, Utilities and Energy Management. The study's principal investigator is Barry Butler, UI professor of mechanical and industrial engineering and dean of the College of Engineering.

Milster said that when the biomass boiler is operational it will have the capacity to generate more than 50 percent of the campus thermal energy requirements from fuels such as wood chips and oat hulls. The steam produced with this renewable fuel will offset steam produced from fossil fuel natural gas boilers.

Milster noted that the UI is unique in that it currently uses multiple renewable energy technologies, including significant biomass combustion in the form of oat hulls at its main power plant and a new reciprocating engine-based renewable district energy system that will use landfill gas.

It is most significant that the renewable fuels used in the Oakdale Renewable Energy Plant are procured locally, versus out-of-state coal and natural gas.

According to Butler, the project complements and supports the national energy policy and state of Iowa initiatives in ethanol, biodiesel and energy independence.

"The University of Iowa is blessed with a Utilities and Energy Management group that is progressive in their thinking and willing to work closely with our faculty and students on leading-edge research,” said Butler.

The overall project involves the development of a biomass-fueled, university-scale steam generation system based on biomass gasification technologies. Upon its completion, the system will serve as a state-of-the-art research and educational facility in the emerging application of gasification in steam generation.

Conventional sources of fuel for biomass generation of steam include byproducts of ethanol and biodiesel processes, such as distiller grains, as well as industry residues, including oat hulls, wood chips, construction and demolition waste. Other potential fuel sources are farm-related material, such as seed corn and soybean seed, and poplar trees that are currently used for cleaning up ground water.

The UI facility, which will include a smaller down-draft gasifier and a larger multi-stage biomass boiler, will be designed to operate primarily on wood-based fuels, but have provisions for testing other biomass fuel sources produced within a 100-mile radius, providing enough flexibility to meet the fluctuating local supply of biomass from industry and Midwest agriculture.

"While wood chips will start out as the primary fuel, we're excited to investigate a full range of farm residues and other waste materials as fuel," said Ratner. "Unused seed corn and soybeans are good prospects as they are available in large quantities and have limited other uses. Other exciting potential fuels include chipped-up railroad ties, shredded tires, and other difficult materials that are often land-filled."

The Green Power Initiative also includes a substantial, innovative educational component. In addition to onsite educational and research programs in plant operation and biomass fuels, a strategy will be developed for disseminating the knowledge that is acquired under the Green Power Initiative.

"This will be the first attempt to integrate undergraduate and graduate-level teaching -- through classroom studies and experiential learning -- and applied research into a biomass-based, university-scale, functioning power plant. The initiative will help develop guidelines for other universities, cities and industries worldwide to follow in retrofitting existing utilities to burn biofuels in conjunction with coal and/or natural gas," Butler said.

The green power initiative complements a variety of other UI energy-saving efforts.

For example, there is the UI's evolving "green energy discovery district," roughly bounded by Madison Street Services Building (MSSB), the University Services Building and the UI Power Plant. The area engages several green energy technologies that include a new 2.4 kW wind turbine to be used as a teaching device, the new Energy Control Center on the third floor of the University Services Building, a solar E-car charging station to be constructed near MSSB, two types of photovoltaic/solar panel technologies on and adjacent to the new Cambus maintenance facility, expansion of the biomass energy program at the UI Power Plant, a growing alternative fuel vehicle fleet, and the investigation into the revitalization of hydroelectric power. Several of these projects are the outcome of collaborative efforts between Facilities Management and the College of Engineering.

UI Office of Sustainability Director Liz Christiansen said, "We're working every day to fulfill President Mason's vision of a sustainable campus. The University of Iowa is an acknowledged leader in building renewable energy systems. These systems provide power for a growing campus and offer unique opportunities for students to learn first-hand how different technologies can be integrated for performance and reliability."

STORY SOURCE: University of Iowa News Services, 300 Plaza Centre One, Suite 371, Iowa City, Iowa 52242-2500

MEDIA CONTACT: Gary Galluzzo, 319-384-0009,