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The adoption of highly efficient, low-emission alternative biofuels just got a boost thanks to $7 million worth of Department of Energy grants announced earlier this month.

The University of Central Florida landed two grants worth more than $1.25 million, which will help the Department of Energy accelerate the introduction of affordable, scalable and sustainable high-performance alternative fuels for use in high-efficiency, low-emission vehicle engines. UCF and seven other teams won a total of eight grants.

Competition was stiff and the UCF team bested hundreds of other multi-university teams. The Massachusetts Institute of Technology, for example, also successfully won a grant. Its team includes Subith Vasu, assistant professor, UCF Mechanical and Aerospace Engineering, who also is working with the UCF team.

“We are honored and excited to be the recipient of two of eight awards from this highly competitive program,” said Debra Reinhart, associate vice president for research and scholarship. “These awards place us in an elite group of researchers who are paving the way toward maximizing fuel-use efficiency while minimizing environmental impacts.”

“These awards place us in an elite group of researchers who are paving the way toward maximizing fuel-use efficiency while minimizing environmental impacts.”   -Debra Reinhart

The Search For Alternative Biofuels

The federal agency announced the awards as part of its Co-Optimization of Fuels and Engines initiative, which “aims to simultaneously transform both transportation fuels and vehicles in order to maximize performance and energy efficiency, minimize environmental impact, and accelerate widespread adoption of innovative combustion strategies.”

But the challenge isn’t just finding the best fuel that works with high-performance engines. To achieve widespread adoption, there are many other challenges that must be solved. For example, can the new fuel be piped into stations without leaking into surrounding soil and damaging the environment? Will special seals be needed in engines or at distribution points to protect engine parts and humans from fumes?

UCF’s project will not only look at the viability of compounds and their potential use in high-performing engines, but the team will put the compounds through nine tests that will provide information about the likelihood of being able to safely, efficiently and cost-effectively mass produce and deliver the alternative fuels.

“We will be looking at hundreds of compounds,” said Kareem Ahmed, assistant professor, UCF Mechanical and Aerospace Engineering, who is the lead investigator for the UCF-led project. “Some of them have never been tested, so we will be putting them through an array of tests to explore and evaluate fuel-spray atomization, flame topology, flame speed, auto-ignition, volatility, viscosity, soot/coking, and compatibility.”

These tests will provide the DOE information that will help the agency and engine manufacturers determine which fuels might be good ones to pursue for further development.

Kareem Ahmed poses in his lab
Kareem Ahmed

UCF Leads Fuel Research

UCF’s experience with similar fuel studies for aircraft engines helped position the university to be competitive, Ahmed said. And the Center for Advanced Turbomachinery and Energy Research on the main campus is positioned to test and provide the data.

“This effort aims at holistic or comprehensive characterization of biofuels or any other alternative fuel,” said CATER director Jayanta Kapat, professor, UCF Mechanical and Aerospace Engineering. He is also a member of the team. “Most prior research efforts have been aimed at production of fuels and/or evaluation of a few properties. However, automotive applications, and supply-and-delivery logistics require a plethora of properties to be within prescribed ranges for such fuel to be classified as a ‘drop-in’ replacement. This is the need that this project will address.”

Kapat said he believes this is the first effort in holistic or comprehensive characterization of biofuels in a U.S university.

Vasu’s work with MIT is unique, as well. The project will construct computer models to predict the combustion chemistry of proposed biofuels, which can then be used to determine which of the proposed fuels will have high performance in advanced engines. Vasu’s role will be to provide data from experiments in his lab, which will feed the computer models.

“MIT is a pioneer in this field of computer-generated models,” Vasu said. “They are the main people doing it in this country. I’m happy to be partnering with them. The shock tube experiments in my lab will provide data to calibrate their models and hopefully accelerate the process of finding the best fuel options among a sea of hundreds.”

Vasu will also work on the UCF-led team.

National Security and Economic Impact

UCF researcher Richard Blair, who is also a member of CATER and UCF’s Cluster for the Rational Design of Catalysts for Energy Applications and Propulsion, is providing his expertise in chemical and physical characterization of fuels to the project. Blair’s work will provide new insight into the temperature-dependent properties of gasoline-equivalent fuels.

“We have seen that bio-derived fuels can have compositional differences that add challenges to realizing a drop-in fuel,” Blair said.

Ahmed said the development of this technology is critical not just for science’s sake, but for the nation’s security and economic future.

“Gasoline and diesel-fuel combustion is the dominant source of automotive power generation,” he said.

“There is a broad desire to develop alternative fuels and blended fuels for automotive combustion for the foreseeable future. The depleting availability of fuels has had a destabilizing influence on the economic security of the nation, while emission of carbon dioxide from combustion continues to impact the environment. In this context, there is a critical need to explore and implement these alternative biofuels in combustion systems that have high conversion efficiencies and minimized environmental impact.”