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Thursday, November 5, 2009

UNCP, A&T get $750,000 for biofuels research and production

A $750,000 appropriation from the 2010 federal Energy and Water bill will help The University of North Carolina at Pembroke and North Carolina A&T State University develop affordable alternative energy for farmers.

Biofuels Team – Drs. Cornelia Tirla, Tom Dooling, Siva Mandjiny and Rachel Smith

Biofuels Team – Drs. Cornelia Tirla, Tom Dooling, Siva Mandjiny and Rachel Smith

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Funding for the biodiesel research program was announced by U.S. Sen. Kay Hagan and Rep. Mike McIntyre. The program focuses on fuel sources that are readily available in Southeastern North Carolina and can be efficiently converted into biodiesel. 

“The bottom line is developing an inexpensive biodiesel production method for farmers,” said Dr. Siva Mandjiny, one of UNCP’s lead scientists on the project. “We will also involve students in research.”

The biofuels program will run for three years beginning in January 2010. UNCP will supply the science, and N.C. A&T will supply the engineering. The group will hire a full-time research scientist.

Robeson Community College’s BioAg Center will also be a partner in project activities, and the project will be located at UNCP’s Biotechnology Research and Training Center at COMtech.

Dr. Charles Harrington, provost and vice chancellor for Academic Affairs, noted that UNCP has been producing biodiesel and doing wide-ranging biofuels research since 2007.

“Our faculty and students have been working hard on this issue for some time,” Dr. Harrington said. “Our principal focus has been on applied research efforts to help expand the biofuels knowledge base and to assist farmers and environmentally conscious businesses in finding more effective and efficient ways to leverage alternative fuel sources. 

Reactor – Student Eric Leviner works on a batch of biodiesel. It takes six hours to produce a batch.

Reactor – Student Eric Leviner works on a batch of biodiesel. It takes six hours to produce a batch.

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“For the past three years we have been producing high-grade biodiesel and using it in many of the University’s diesel burning engines,” he said. “We are always looking for ways to save taxpayer dollars.”

The program will utilize inexpensive raw materials such as canola oil and soy beans to produce biodiesel in an efficient and economical way. UNCP’s scientists are producing biodiesel in the lab for about $1.20 per gallon.

“I have demonstrated our research to farmers who are very excited about beginning production,” Dr. Mandjiny said.

Congressman McIntyre and Sen. Hagan are also excited.

“These critical projects will benefit communities across North Carolina,” Sen. Hagan said. “This bill funds projects that will boost our economy through investments in renewable energy technologies that will reduce our dependence on foreign oil.”

“This exciting new program will stimulate education in the classroom for UNCP students while providing farmers with additional value and protecting the environment,” Rep. McIntyre said. “Alternative energy such as biodiesel is the wave of the future for energy generation, and UNCP is a leader in this emerging industry. 

“This is a victory for the students and faculty that will have great benefits for the public!” Rep. McIntyre, chairman of the House Agriculture Subcommittee on Rural Development, added. 

Congress appropriated $11.2 million in funding for North Carolina projects overall, including renewable energy research.

Dr. Linda Little, UNCP’s director of Federal Relations, expressed gratitude for Sen. Hagan’s and Rep. McIntyre’s support. 

“This is a vote of confidence in UNCP’s researchers and will bring focus to an important line of research that will directly benefit the region,” Dr. Little said.

Dr. Mandjiny will work with chemistry professor Dr. Cornelia Tirla, physics professor Dr. Tom Dooling and organic chemist Dr. Rachel Smith.

Dr. Mandjiny is also excited about the collaboration with N.C. A&T.

“Dr. Ghasem Shahbazi is a top scientist in the field of biological engineering,” he said. “We believed that involving a research university would help us win funding.

“I am working on the science, and they will take it from bench to scale, theory to practice,” Dr. Mandjiny said. “I ran the process for them, and they are excited about what we are doing.”

UNCP is using a heterogeneous production method that is fast and inexpensive. With this process, production can be continuous. The solid acid/base catalyst is reusable and simplifies the process with few environmental issues.

Ultimately, UNCP would like to stimulate the formation of a farmers’ cooperative. Biodiesel is the fastest growing alternative fuel in the U.S. and tax credits are available for producers.

Oil seeds like soy beans are grown in abundance in Southeastern North Carolina and could fuel farm tractors and trucks at a substantial cost savings.

“Research is fine,” Dr. Mandjiny said, “but our ultimate goal is to reach out to farmers to make biodiesel on their farms and to make their quality of life better.”

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