Shelie Miller: Biofuel Research

My name is Shelie Miller.  I am an Assistant Professor with the Department of Environmental Engineering and Sciences.

Well, what’s a very interesting thing that we never even think about is that everything that comes on our shelves has a life.  Every product has a birth where it’s taken out of the earth in some way; an adolescence where it’s manufactured into the product where we use it; and finally, a disposal.  And during each stage of this life cycle, which we term life-cycle assessment, there’s various environmental impacts. And so it’s really trying to get at what those environmental impacts are and how we can improve the environmental impacts of the products.

What we don’t know a lot about are developing products or things that are yet to come about; and one of the big things of course that you probably heard about coming about are a lot of alternative energy sources.  One of the big ones being biofuels.

One of the other up and coming alternative energies is called cellulosic ethanol and that means a lot of different types of crops, new crops that are not corn or soybeans or sugar cane or some of the other crops that we normally use. 

So, we’re doing this life-cycle assessment method – basically looking at all of the environmental impacts in all stages of this product: from growing the crops to manufacturing them into ethanol to eventually burning in our cars.  Seeing what those environmental impacts are and comparing them to environmental impacts of petroleum and gasoline.  And the ultimate goal is to make sure that we’re not creating new environmental impacts in our potential solution to the energy problem.

One of the things that we’re trying to do is if you’re going to make a substitute for gasoline, you want to make sure that the energy you put into a product is going to be less than the energy you get out of it or, at least, the petroleum energy that you put in is less than energy you get out of it.  And so, we’re looking at all of these environmental impacts that happen and trying to minimize them.  So the idea is not just come up with a substitute for gasoline but come up with an actual better substitute for gasoline.

We really are going to see an increase in the use of biofuels.  Right now we have government mandates that say we’re going to increase the amount of biofuels to about 10% of energy next year, or at least our transportation fuel mixture.  So we’re going to see biofuels more and more in our gas stations.   Of course the main crux for scientists and policy makers and the public to push for is to make sure they’re responsive bio fuels, to make sure they do have improved environmental impacts,  to make sure that there isn’t a conflict between food and fuel which people talked about saying increased corn growing is decreasing food supply.

And what we’re really seeing is that switchgrass grows really well in the southeast region. And so this is a very good improvement potentially for South Carolinian farmers; and so what we see is this could be a very good rural economic development piece, where we can use this resource, create a new crop that people can grow if they decide to and potentially new energy resources, new industry resources for actually profits in biofuels.  And so, we need to be a little bit more conscientious about energy use.  We need to be more conscious about the types of fuel we’re using; and I think this is one step in the process, but it certainly isn’t the solution to the entire thing.