UH-GEMI Faculty Provide Bridge Between
Bio-Fuels Refiners and Researchers
Two energy experts from the University of Houston C. T. Bauer College of Business have assumed a unique role in fostering the development of the bio-fuels needed to reach the U.S. administration’s aggressive goal to more than triple the country’s bio-fuels production by 2012.
Stephen Arbogast and Donald Bellman — who joined the faculty of the UH-Global Energy Management Institute (UH-GEMI) after long careers with Exxon Mobil Corp. — have become a bridge between small research companies and big oil.
With the help of two other Exxon alumni, one who’d headed Exxon refining R&D, they have worked to bring together bio-fuels researchers and big refiners to speed the process of finding practical, large scale alternatives to ethanol.
Their work as a go-between — identifying key issues and helping reach solutions — aided a coalition of bio-fuel researchers, refiners and the National Renewable Energy Laboratory, which recently won a major federal grant to further its development work.
“This is bringing some of the thinking that will be involved in commercialization back into the early stages of the research,” Arbogast said. This should speed development because “the guys in the lab are doing research in some of the more practical aspects of eventual commercialization.”
The collaborative research effort led by the National Renewable Energy Laboratory and Pacific Northwest National Laboratory was awarded $34 million to further its research in making fuels using pyrolysis. The grant plus added support from the oil companies will pay for work to see if oil made by rapidly heating and then cooling biomass will be a practical feedstock for refineries.
Tom Foust, biomass Laboratory Program Manager for the Renewable Energy Lab, said Arbogast and Bellman played an important role in winning the grant.
“They helped us by being a go-between,” Foust said. “Their understanding of the concerns of the refining industry helped us guide researchers in the direction where we show the results refiners are wanting to see. On the flip side they’ve worked with refining industry to let them know what we are doing.”
All of which is encouraging for Arbogast, but he warns it’s too soon to know if pyrolysis will prove to be a practical method to make fuel.
In the process this work could lead to a better method for sorting out bio-fuel winners and losers.
“There needs to be a screening process used to identify which ideas have the potential to be scaled up,” said Praveen Kumar, executive director of GEMI. “Right now millions are spent on ideas without asking questions about their realistic commercial potential. GEMI and Houston have the right expertise to address these crucial issues.”
By Stephen Rassenfoss