Research & Initiatives
Biofuels & Bioproducts Development
Energy production and use are strong indicators of economic prosperity and high living standards. Global energy demand is projected to grow dramatically within the next 50 years, but at the same time the public is concerned about energy security, climate change, and environmental pollution. Clearly, our country needs policies and technologies that enhance energy conservation and promote renewable energy production from sustainable natural resources.
Given the critical nature of energy, we have made renewable energy R&D and education top priorities at the College with a focus on (1) Renewable Fuels, such as ethanol, biodiesel, and sustainable hydrocarbons, from cellulosic biomass, algae, and oilseed crops; and (2) Renewable Power in solar, wind, geothermal, biogas, and hydrokinetic forms.
Algae represent a plentiful renewable resource of low-carbon biofuels and high-value bioproducts, while serving as a sink of carbon dioxide and wastewater. Our applied research focuses on bringing algae to the commercial arena by closing the gap between academia and industry.
Using our engineering and biochemical expertise, we use marine and freshwater algae strains in our lab and outdoor facilities to understand the algal metabolism and direct towards optimal synthesis of consumer products under real-world conditions. Algal lipids are converted to sustainable aviation fuel (SAF) and other biofuels, whereas certain pigments and lipids serve as sustainable biomaterials for nutraceutical and cosmetic formulations. Algal sugars are used to produce a myriad of chemicals via fermentation, whereas algal proteins (and whole algae) are incorporated into animal feed and fishmeal.
We employ both phototrophic algae, which grow photosynthetically on inorganic carbon (CO2), and heterotrophic algae, which grow on organic carbon. We use random mutagenesis and adaptive evolution to develop strains with enhanced properties in terms of thermal, salt, and pH tolerance that can render them more productive and cost effective. Using cutting-edge metabolomics and genomics, we shed light on metabolic and genetic changes in the cell that can advance the current status of the algae technology.
Finally, using our microbiology expertise, we are investigating practical biological and mechanical means to suppress harmful algae blooms (HAB) in an effort to restore the health of the ocean microbiome and minimize red tide impact on coastal communities.
Our efforts are focused on:
- Algal physiology
- Algal strain development
- Design of cost-effective cultivation platforms
- Scale-up and operation of algae production systems
- Water, nutrient, and energy management
- Development of algal biofuels, nutraceuticals, and cosmetics
- Suppression of Karenia brevis (red tide)
These technical capabilities are supplemented with business experience in assessing the economic feasibility of algal technologies and projecting financial return to investors.
Biofuels & Bioproducts From Biomass
integrated inside a commercial
sugarcane mill in Florida.
Biomass, the inedible fiber of plants and trees, is an abundant and inexpensive domestic feedstock for biorefineries designed to produce value-added green products and clean power. Biomass consists of the natural polymers cellulose, hemicellulose, and lignin and is far more sustainable than crops since it does not compete with food. Its low-carbon profile, based on a life-cycle basis, can help combat climate change.
The US generates millions of tons of biomass every year primarily from agricultural crops, such as corn stover, wheat straw, and sugarcane bagasse. Our applied research focuses on the conversion of cellulose and hemicellulose in biomass to sugars in scalable and cost-effective ways through biochemical conversion. First, biomass is pretreated using mild conditions and green chemistry principles. Then, natural cellulase enzymes are employed to convert cellulose to simple sugars. The generated 6-carbon (glucose) and 5-carbon (xylose) sugars can form the basis of a sustainable green economy, as they are readily converted via fermentation (or thermochemical processing) to a variety of platform chemicals for the manufacture of biofuels, plastics, resins, and other renewable products.
In essence, biomass can eventually replace oil as a low-carbon source of chemicals essential for consumer products. Particular emphasis is placed on understanding the microbial synthesis of organic acids, such as succinic acid, which can then find use in a wide range of applications. Moreover, we integrate biomass and algae technologies by cultivating fast-growing algae in inexpensive biomass sugars to help create the circular economy of the future.
Our expertise in biomass conversion provides USF partners and collaborators with unique biochemical, process development, and scale-up expertise.
Sustainable Aviation Fuel from the inedible oilseed crop Brassica carinata
The aviation sector uses large amounts of jet fuel and as a result is a major source of carbon emissions and pollutants, which contribute to climate change and air quality deterioration. Just in the United States aviation consumes 24 billion gallons of jet fuel annually.
In an effort to make aviation more sustainable, USF has joined forces with other institutions and companies to form SPARC, the Southeastern Partnership for Advanced Renewables from Carinata. With the support of a major multi-year grant from the US Department of Agriculture, the Consortium aims at developing and commercializing the large-scale cultivation of the non-edible oilseed plant Brassica carinata and its conversion to renewable jet fuel, diesel, and a slate of bioproducts in the Southeastern United States.
In our region carinata can be produced as a cool season crop covering millions of acres of winter fallow land without affecting the production of existing warm season crops, such as soybeans, peanuts, and cotton. The carinata seeds are crushed to extract oil, which is chemically converted to jet fuel and diesel, while a number of bioproducts (such as glycerin and erucic acid) are recovered and converted to high value products. The solid residue (meal) from carinata seeds provides a high-protein feed source for livestock.
These characteristics make carinata a promising cool season crop that can provide agronomic, environmental, and economic benefits to farmers, hence helping develop a bioeconomy in the US. The Patel College of Global Sustainability leads USF's participation in the Consortium by focusing its research efforts on biofuel and bioproduct development, supply chain logistics and resiliency, techno-economic assessment, undergraduate and graduate education, and workforce development. Research is conducted at PCGS' state-of-the-art Biofuels & Bioproducts Lab with the participation of several undergraduate, master, and doctoral students.
More information about SPARC can be found at https://sparc-cap.org
Fuel diversification is needed for diesel and jet engines. The US consumes 57 billion gallons of diesel and 5 billion gallons of military fuels annually, hence depending significantly on foreign oil. Such dependence renders the United States vulnerable to political instability around the world.
Our research has focused on production of biodiesel using supercritical fluid technology. Using our chemical engineering expertise, we investigate biodiesel production from renewable resources, such as algal oils and vegetable oils.