Fueling the FuturePage address: http://grad.mnsu.edu/research/magazine/doc2005/fuelingthefuture.html
Fueling the Future
MSU Minnesota Center for Sustainable Energy Focuses on Finding Renewable Sources of Fuel
by Rachael Hanel, ’97, ’04
Bruce Jones eyes the computer closely. Numbers and other data in blue and green scroll across the black screen. The automotive engineering technology professor squints, furrows his brow in concentration and sizes up the information. He makes some adjustments, relaxes a bit and takes a bite of his sandwich.
This research could mean big changes in the effort to create cleaner air. Jones is testing a special blend of diesel fuel that incorporates 15 percent biodiesel and 2 percent ethanol. The blend reduces the amount of fossil fuel that constitutes diesel, decreasing emissions in the process. Therefore, less fossil fuel is used, and the belch from diesel engines contains fewer contaminants.
Jones' interest in renewable and sustainable energy is not uncommon at Minnesota State University, Mankato. MSU faculty and students have long displayed a commitment to researching alternative forms of energy. During the oil embargo of the 1970s, for example, faculty at MSU created a 50/50 car that got fifty miles to the gallon while going fifty miles per hour. The University's Minnesota Center for Automotive Research (MNCar) has been testing alternative fuels for years.
But this type of ongoing research took on a pointed focus when the Minnesota Center for Sustainable Energy was established in 2004 at MSU. The MCSE's mission is to provide research that will move Minnesota toward sustainable energy independence. Right now, Minnesota imports 93 percent of its energy.
Louis Schwartzkopf, professor of physics and director of the MCSE, says oil and natural gas reserves are dwindling quickly. As the population grows, demand will increase while supply decreases. He says our society is driven by oil. This steady demand for fossil fuels also comes from European countries and developing nations such as China and India.
"It behooves us as a society to find some rational way to deal with the decline", Schwartzkopf says.
Use of fossil fuels also causes problems such as the greenhouse effect and global warming, says John Frey, dean of the College of Science, Engineering and Technology. "For our own self–interests, we need to find a way to go to renewable fuel for energy and the environment", he says.
Jones says the Center comes at a great time. The current high oil and gas prices spark renewed interest in this type of research. "I've received a lot of phone calls from all over the country", he says. "It feels pretty good".
Energy in Motion
Although the MCSE is still fairly new, faculty are already excited about its potential. Schwartzkopf says the focus now is finding out how different departments will fit into the overall structure. Construction management, biology, chemistry, physics and all the engineering programs already figure prominently. There's even the possibility of extending beyond the traditional sciences into social science and urban studies to study how people live and work.
Scott Fee, professor of construction management and chair of the Interior Design and Construction Management Department, says the MCSE has helped him forge relationships with other colleagues with whom he otherwise wouldn't have connected. For example, he's talking with Wayne Allen in Ethnic Studies about the possibility of traveling to Australia and New Zealand to learn how native cultures live through sustainable means, not only when it comes to food and energy, but also in how their buildings are constructed.
"There's this momentum where ideas are overlapping across disciplines", Fee says.
One of the MCSE's first projects is the construction of a wind turbine on campus. The University would use the energy, and faculty and students would be able to conduct hands–on research. Wind turbines are already busy at work on the Minnesota prairie, particularly on Buffalo Ridge in southwestern Minnesota. Frey says studies show the potential for wind energy at MSU is just as strong as that harnessed at Buffalo Ridge.
"The whole concept of wind energy is here for the picking", Frey says.
Frey also is looking into putting an anaerobic digester plant on campus. Such a unit would convert urban waste into methane gas to be used for energy. Frey says the plant would feed on the massive quantities of food waste that are disposed on campus each day — waste that currently goes to a landfill.
Minnesota is in a prime location for research into renewable energy. Not only do winds whip across the state, but Mankato is in the heart of south–central Minnesota's intensely agricultural region. Corn, soybeans and other plants, including sorghum and grasses, fuel research into ethanol and other natural energy sources.
The next step is finding money to help fund research. Already MSU works with organizations such as the Minnesota Corn Growers Association and the Department of Commerce; it's also a member of the U.S. Green Building Council. Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty cited research done at MSU in his plan to use 20 percent ethanol in gasoline, rather than the current 10 percent requirement. The University also works closely with Rep. Gil Gutknecht's office.
Just the Beginning
Fee sees the MCSE as a starting point that will get students interested in studying sustainability issues across disciplines. In the future, students may be able to choose courses in biology, chemistry, ecology, physics and construction management that would give them a broader knowledge base.
"We can harness that into a body of knowledge to help students graduate as managers of resources", Fee says. "It also helps create more responsible consumers and citizens".
Frey says that interest is there: Everyone he talks to expresses interest in the MCSE. "This is one issue that resonates the most among everyone. People see it as something we need to do in the near future", he says.
In the meantime, Schwartzkopf and Frey agree that faculty at MSU are already doing great things. "There are lots of really good people at the university who do and can do research", Schwartzkopf says. "Not just here, in this department or college, but University–wide. We do top–notch things".
Rachael Hanel is a Mankato–based freelance writer and a frequent contributor to MSU's TODAY magazine.