NSF Science & Engineering Messengers

If You Build It: Harnessing Science for Iowa’s Future

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[Credit: National Renewable Energy Laboratory]

This is a sample blog post composed for the NSF “Science: Becoming the Messenger” workshop in Ames, Iowa, October 16-17, 2012.

We all know the scene from the movie Field of Dreams, in which a mysterious voice, carried on the wind rustling through the cornfield, tells Iowa farmer Ray Kinsella, “If you build it, he will come.” It may be the single most iconic Iowa moment in popular culture. But perhaps it takes on a new meaning when you consider Iowa’s prominent role, today, in generating clean energy from the winds that rustle through cornfields–and from those fields themselves. The state’s already building it—and economic prosperity is likely to come as a result.

Leveraging science to advance Iowa’s clean energy economy is the chief goal of a new $ 20 million, five year grant from the NSF EPSCoR program (Experimental Program to Stimulate Competitive Research). The initiative focuses on the clean energy fields where the state already has a natural, home team advantage: Iowa already leads the U.S. in biofuels production, for instance, and it is second only to the much larger Texas in wind power generation. In each case, however, we’re largely reliant on “first generation” forms of these technologies—corn-based ethanol, for instance, or today’s familiar wind turbines. The central goal of the new initiative is to uncover the next generation technologies that will give the state—and companies founded or working there—a leg up on the competition.

Take biofuels. We’ve all heard about the “food versus fuel” issues that arise with the use of ethanol from corn–underscoring why it’s important to get past first generation biofuels and on to more promising possibilities (sometimes called “advanced biofuels”) that don’t have the same baggage. Just consider: While turning corn into fuel has its problems, when farmers harvest corn they leave behind the stalk and the leaves, the so-called “corn residue.” So imagine if some part of that residue—made up of cellulosic biomass–could also be harvested and turned into fuel. There won’t be any food-versus-fuel issues any longer—there’ll just be a new source of energy.

Right now, Iowa researchers are trying to design thermo-chemical conversion processes that could unlock this energy potential, in a way much akin to how oil companies refine and process crude oil into gasoline. The goal is to produce so-called “drop-in” fuels that, rather than being blended with gasoline (as corn-based ethanol currently is), could serve as an alternative to it. How does this help the economy? Well, Iowa university research has already fed into a number of local startups in the thermo-chemical biofuels hunt, like Avello Bioenergy and Frontline Bioenergy. Further advances in the science of getting energy from cellulosic biomass will quickly make their way into the marketplace.

Something similar is happening right now in the wind energy space. Although we can already power 20 percent of the state’s energy needs from the copious wind energy available here, today’s turbines—and wind energy generation in general–aren’t all they could be. There are issues surrounding prediction of wind strength and timing, and also the reliability of the massive turbines when faced with weather extremes. Iowa’s scientists are examining these and other problems to give the state’s wind industry, which already supports 6 to 7 thousand jobs, an added boost.

A third part of the new EPSCoR supported initiative focuses on energy efficiency research. For not only is it vital to get more energy from clean and renewable sources that won’t run out some day—we also have to live our lives in ways that consume less energy overall. At the Center for Building Energy Research at Iowa State, for instance, scientists are examining ways of getting around a staggering fact: 40 percent of U.S. energy use comes from the buildings we live and work in. Integrating clean energy sources with smarter building designs can help eat into this number.

There’s no doubt that Iowa provides a picture-perfect setting for clean energy research and innovation. But we still have the choice about what to make of that—and whether to seize on this natural opportunity. The new research initiative represents just that—the choice to build it.

Thanks to Robert C. Brown for help in composing this post.

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Written by nsfmessengers

October 16, 2012 at 5:12 pm

Posted in Uncategorized

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