Prof says alternative fuels beneficial, not a cure-all

By Will Aaron

Many scientists across the nation are experimenting with more environmentally-friendly fuels, but one UK professor said that while alternative forms of fuel are beneficial, they are not a cure-all.

“There will never be a point where we drop what we’re doing and switch to another source; there are serious costs involved,” said Rodney Andrews, director of the Center for Applied Energy Research. “The need is so large and complex; there is no one magic answer.”

Society cannot depend solely on renewable energy sources, Andrews said. Development of alternative forms of fuel relies on fossil fuels, he said, and the costs involved and economic impacts of developing these fuels must be considered as well.

For approximately 30 years now, researchers representing the agriculture, chemistry, biology, forestry and engineering fields at UK have made concerted efforts to change energy consumption habits and reliance on fossil fuels.

“Energy is a large research topic for UK, very spread out across the departments,“ Andrews said.

The U.S. consumes almost 21 million barrels of petroleum per day, Andrews said, and this rate demands that scientists investigate more efficient uses of available resources as well as renewable sources of energy.

UK researcher Burt Davis and his team have been experimenting with the Fischer-Tropsch process, in which coal can be made into a viable liquid fuel with a chemical catalyst, Andrews said.

Fischer-Tropsch fuels are low in toxicity and provide a cleaner substitute for diesel fuel, according to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. The substitute can also be mixed with conventional diesel to produce less hydrocarbon and carbon monoxide emissions.

UK is also in the process of developing new strains of bio-organisms, which are key in the production of bio-diesel fuel, Andrews said. As these bio-organisms are modified, bio-mass fuels, such as ethanol, will be replaced by cleaner burning alternatives.

Ethanol is a colorless liquid that can be made from corn grain starch, sugar cane or other materials, including grass, vineyard grapes or wood, according to the U.S. Department of Energy. About one-third of gasoline in the U.S. contains some form of an ethanol blend.

UK researchers have partnered with the Kentucky Rural Energy Consortium, the University of Louisville, Oak Ridge National Laboratory and the Consortium for Fossil Fuel Science to make headway in finding alternatives to fossil fuel, Andrews said.