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Sustainable Energy Initiative of Mizzou Advantage Could Hold Key to Solving Energy Issues

Facilitator Cerry Klein says that the network of experts could help prevent the next energy crisis.

August 11th, 2010

Story Contact: Christian Basi, 573-882-4430,
Cerry Klein, facilitator of the Sustainable Energy initiative.

Cerry Klein, facilitator of the Sustainable Energy initiative.

COLUMBIA, Mo. ­— Recently, residents of the states bordering the Gulf of Mexico were reminded how the need for energy and the importance of preserving the environment are linked. As millions of gallons of oil circulated in the waters, experts rushed to solve immediate problems, as well as those that will occur in the weeks and years to come. While not having all the answers to the energy crisis, faculty experts at the University of Missouri have been studying for years how to obtain and use energy without disrupting the environment. Now, through the Mizzou Advantage program, faculty from all disciplines, including law, engineering, natural resources and journalism, will combine their expertise to address current energy needs, predict energy problems of the future, and create solutions before the problems occur.

Identified as an initiative in the Mizzou Advantage (During a three-year process, MU faculty, students and alumni identified MU’s top competitive assets, or unique strengths, that set MU apart from other universities. These assets underlie five dynamic initiatives that collectively are called the Mizzou Advantage.), “”Sustainable Energy” will build on such strengths as MU’s research reactor – the most powerful university-operated research reactor in the United States – and programs in nuclear power generation, biofuel development and energy conservation.

“We have all these pieces of expertise that have never really connected in the past,” said Cerry Klein, facilitator of the Sustainable Energy initiative. “If we can put all of these pieces together, then we might have something where the sum is greater than the whole. At that point, we could have the potential for a major impact on energy fields. This is a large socio-economic complex system that will not be solved by technology alone.”

One example is the environmental disaster in the Gulf of Mexico. Klein says that technology failed due to a lack of redundancy, safety maintenance and because people did not foresee what could happen and, therefore, failed to plan for it. While technology will eventually solve the crisis, Klein says that by combining experts in public policy, safety issues and energy technology, the Gulf disaster could have been averted and could now be more quickly solved.

MU has budgeted $6 million of existing funding per year to increase the impact of the Mizzou Advantage by funding various projects driven by networks of collaborators (faculty members, centers, departments, corporate partners and other universities).

Mizzou Advantage is not just about creating technology that can be transferred to the marketplace, but also about utilizing that technology on campus. John Dwyer and Francisco Aguilar, researchers in the Department of Forestry, are involved in a project that will lay the groundwork for how to establish, maintain and understand the economic feasibility of bio-energy plantations that might provide biomass, such as wood and grass, for Mizzou’s new biomass boiler, which is scheduled to go online in 2012.

“This project seemed like a natural fit for us to incorporate our knowledge about cottonwood trees and the needs of the campus,” Dwyer said. “The second part of this project is to transmit this information to private landowners and others who are looking to utilize cottonwood as a potential fuel. This could potentially lead to new streams of revenue and jobs that might ‘prime the pump’ for rural communities that are suffering in these difficult economic times.”

At the same time that Dwyer and Aguilar are working on the farming and marketing of biomass, other projects across campus are investigating the best ways to use other energy sources that are environmentally friendly. For example, MU engineers and agriculture researchers are examining how to keep heat that is generated on turkey farms in the system and use the energy elsewhere on the farm. Other potential projects include analyzing the legal issues of wind farms with MU legal experts and understanding how that might impact environmental or societal concerns.

“We know we’re never going to replace fossil fuels entirely with our current technology, but we need to work to replace as much of it as possible” Klein said. “By exploring the use of biomass, we might be able to make tremendous strides in various areas. For example, the more biofuel a farmer can ‘grow’ and convert on site, the less fossil fuel energy is consumed. This can cut costs for the farmer, lower environmental impact through a number of factors and open the doors of discovery for new products. Through Mizzou Advantage, I hope to create an “energy network” that encompasses many different fields so we can discover problems before they occur and start offering solutions now, before potential problems create catastrophic situations.”

The Mizzou Advantage was created to increase MU’s visibility, impact and stature in higher education, locally, statewide, nationally and around the world. An important first step in initiating the program is a round of grants, totaling more than $900,000, that will fund 26 networking and other projects. MU officials’ goal is that Mizzou Advantage will strengthen existing faculty networks, create new networks and propel Mizzou’s research, instruction and other activities to the next level.