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Dordt engineers look for greener energy alternatives

By Sally Jongsma

You don’t have to look far to notice a common interest in biorenewable energy among people in Dordt’s engineering department. Dr. Ethan Brue (’92), who recently received a Renewable Energy Demonstration Grant from the Iowa Energy Center and previously designed and analyzed biomass gasification and combustion units for Pioneer Hi-Bred International, says his interest in renewable energy was piqued in part by his engineering education as an undergraduate at Dordt College under Dr. Charles Adams. Professor Kevin Timmer (’86), who expects to defend his doctoral dissertation at the Biorenewable Resources and Technology Program at Iowa State University this fall, could say the same.

Sorghum grew behind the engineering building this summer, the biomass for a renewable energy demonstration project that Dr. Ethan
Brue and his students are working on this year. They are designing and building a small-scale biomass to ethanol system to demonstrate
how farmers could supply some of their own fuel for their farming operations.

Sorghum grew behind the engineering building this summer, the biomass for a renewable energy demonstration project that Dr. Ethan Brue and his students are working on this year. They are designing and building a small-scale biomass to ethanol system to demonstrate how farmers could supply some of their own fuel for their farming operations.

Brue and Timmer, along with their colleagues, are passing on the same interest and commitment to their students. Two of them, Junior Jason Ahrenholz and Senior Josh Groen, participated in summer internships with Fagan Inc., a design-build contractor that specializes in heavy industrial engineering and construction and works extensively on ethanol plant contruction. Two of last spring’s grads, Cody Ellens (’07) and Ryan Swanson (’07), have enrolled in the same Biorenewable Resources and Technology program at Iowa State from which Brue and Timmer graduated.

Alumnus Jerod Smeenk (’93) has taken his commitment and training into industry. As one of three principals at Frontline Bioenergy, Smeenk was responsible for the successful installation and start-up of Frontline’s first commercial gasifier system. Gasification is a thermal process that converts organic matter into combustible gases, a process that Brue believes has much untapped potential for utilizing renewable energy resources.

The motivation for students to pursue work in this area is driven by their desire to care for and develop energy sources, says Brue. “We call it stewardship.”

“I began to lean towards the area of biorenewable energy through reading and studying Genesis 1,” says graduate student Ryan Swanson (’07). “Cultivating and caring for God’s creation means being concerned with stewardship.”

Smeenk, who helped found Frontline Bioenergy in Ames, Iowa, in 2005, says, “This line of work and industry interested me because of the environmental, political, and economic benefits of renewable energy, if it is used wisely. I wish I could say that I knew for sure that an energy crisis was/is imminent, but I can honestly and thankfully say that my involvement with renewable energy is a result of God’s leading, not my doing.”

“As engineers we’re hoping to have a positive impact—a redemptive influence on our world,” says Timmer. “It’s easy to see that we are spending our energy inheritance, the world’s fossil fuel reserves.” He believes we will need to learn to be content with living on our energy income as received from the sun, adding, “If done sustainably, energy derived from biomass can serve as a legitimate part of that energy income.”

“Many people seem to think that switching away from petroleum to ethanol derived from corn or other sources will save us and our consumptive lifestyle. There isn’t enough corn or biomass to do that,” Timmer says. He believes it will take a combination of changed habits and renewable energy sources to provide for our future energy needs. People, particularly in this country, aren’t ready to hear that yet, he says, adding that energy resources need to get more scarce—and costly—before development gets profitable and new funding for research and development becomes readily available.

Brue tells his students that there is no one solution to today’s energy crisis. Each energy source has positives and negatives and people should make energy choices that best fit their geographical and cultural context. Biomass may be a good source for rural areas where the low energy density resource can be grown and harvested with less cost for transporting, but so might wind and solar. Urban areas may need to rely on energy sources that have a higher energy density, while placing a greater emphasis on conservation, co-generation, and mass transit.

“We are used to throwing all of our eggs in one basket, doing things on a large scale and in the easiest way possible,” he says. He suggests thinking more broadly about our energy systems, looking at each step to determine how resources can best be used, thinking about how an energy source can serve more than one purpose, and maybe exploring the advantages of small-scale energy conversion. For example, producing electricity gives hot water as a byproduct—which in the United States often gets wasted when it could be put to good use. “We may need to begin thinking differently,” he says, noting that people in other parts of the world with more scarce energy resources are already doing so.

Timmer’s doctoral research is one piece of such thinking. His dissertation titled “Carbon Conversion During Bubbling Fluidized Bed Gasification of Biomass” revolves around the gasification process in which biomass is heated to high enough temperatures that it converts about eighty-five percent to gas—a gas he describes as a somewhat “wimpy” natural gas. In fact, around the turn of the century in the United States this process was used to provide gas street lighting in cities. Timmer wanted to improve the efficiency of the gasification process so that a higher percent of the biomass could be converted to gas. In his attempt to improve efficiency, he determined that speeding up the chemistry of the process simply increases the rate that particles are removed from the gasifier, leaving the efficiency unchanged. The model he developed, however, will provide a tool to help others analyze different ways of improving the conversion of carbon to gas.

Interestingly, Timmer’s advisor is also supervising research focused on how to use the leftover “char”—the matter that does not easily gasify. Studies are currently being carried out to determine whether it will help improve soil quality for the next crop of biomass.

This kind of thinking is where U.S. energy exploration needs to head, say Brue and Timmer.

Brue also thinks that knowing more about where their energy comes from could help people think more consciously about their energy use and their energy priorities. Oil or gasoline coming through a pipeline seems limitless when you don’t know where it comes from. Local sources and production could lead to more thoughtful setting and weighing of priorities.

Ethanol and energy use are polarizing issues, and Brue urges people not to approach them too simplistically. For example, a great deal of debate has centered around whether the production of ethanol takes more energy to produce than is ultimately produced in fuel form (i.e. a negative net energy balance). While most recent studies show that most ethanol production processes have achieved a positive net energy balance, the debate is really centered on the wrong measure. Although they often escape the debates of politicians, all of our most common forms of useful energy are produced with a net negative energy balance—such as gasoline and electricity. But these forms of energy enable us to do things we wouldn’t otherwise be able to do.

“Transportation is good—it allows us to be community,” he says about our world, where families and friends are often separated. “But it needs to be weighed against other factors too: energy efficiency, carbon footprint, air quality, local economy, and leaving resources for others. Energy is a resource God has given us. But with the resource comes the responsibility to ask “How are we serving the Creator and his creation?”

“If we develop such a culture, we’ll have a greater potential for dealing with the looming energy crisis,” Brue believes.

Timmer adds, “This is an exciting time to be an engineer. There is a lot of good challenging work that will need to be done in this area in the next fifty years.”

What two recent Dordt College alums have to say about biorenewable energy

What drew you to a Biorenewable Resources and Technology program?

Cody Ellens: First, following God’s command to care for and develop Creation, using the talents and tools he has given me, and second, the numerous career possibilities and avenues in this emerging field.

Ryan Swanson: Using non-renewable sources of energy is inherently risky. Second, this area of engineering is on the forefront of energy research. With knowledge and critical decision-making we can help reduce our carbon emissions from fossil energy and reduce our dependence on non-renewable energy.

What would you like everyone to think about when they make energy choices?

Ellens: To be aware of the choices we make. Dordt’s engineering department did a wonderful job of teaching us to examine the choices we make, not only in the type of steel we use or the controller we select, but also in the jobs we accept, the cars we drive, even simple everyday decisions. So, too, people should think critically and biblically about the energy choices they make. For example, “Do I really need that new iPhone?” or “Should I buy that Ford Mustang?” How are these things helping me glorify the Creator of the Universe?

Swanson: Good energy choices take into account many different factors. We must not only think about economic factors, but also such things as efficiency, waste streams, emissions, and social impact. Most importantly it is becoming clearer that no energy choice is the magic answer. We have to keep future generations in mind as we follow God’s call.