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Brookhaven Develops Clean, Sustainable Energy Alternatives

Biofuel field testing, wind-energy design, battery-material development, natural-gas harvesting, clean hydrogen production — these are several of the alternative-energy research initiatives now underway at Brookhaven. The goal is to transfer to industry technology that solves world-wide energy challenges in an innovative, economically feasible fashion.
by Peter Genzer

The oil burner flares to life with a bright blue and orange flame, illuminating the walls of Brookhaven’s oil-heat laboratory. This burner, however, is fueled much differently than those typically found in homes: It is being powered by a mix of fuel oil and a vegetable oil-derived alternative known as biodiesel, thus reflecting the forward thinking of researchers in Brookhaven’s Energy Sciences & Technology Department (ES&T).

Tom Butcher stands behind the Brookhaven-developed fan-atomized oil burner, which offers improved fuel- and air-mixing for better performance and is now commercially available.

“It is important for the United States to have an alternative fuel option — we need to have a Plan-B energy source that we can turn to in the future,” says C.R. Krishna, Brookhaven’s lead biodiesel researcher. “So, we see biodiesel as a potential home-grown fuel for home heating.”

Initially designed as an alternative for diesel-powered vehicles, biodiesel is a “biofuel” that can also be used as an additive or replacement energy source for use in a standard, oil-fired furnace or boiler. Made from new or used vegetable oils or animal fats, biofuel is biodegradable, nontoxic, and, most important, renewable. While organic materials take millions of years to transform into fossil fuels, biofuel feedstocks can be grown in just a few months, and the plants themselves consume carbon dioxide, helping to counterbalance what is produced when the fuels are burned.

Brookhaven researchers, in collaboration with the New York State Energy Research and Development Authority, have been studying the practicality of biofuel use in a two-year, 100-home field test in upstate New York, one of several such studies going on across the country. The Laboratory is also working with the National Park Service (NPS), providing technical assistance and performing monitoring as part of a test of biodiesel planned for an NPS site on Long Island.

“One of the benefits is that these biofuels burn much more cleanly than fuel oil,” explains Krishna. In addition to reducing boiler buildup and the subsequent need for servicing, the burning of biofuels in residential boilers results in the release into the air of less nitrogen oxide and particulate, and no sulfur dioxide, thus reducing air emissions.

In contrast to the reduced environmental cost, biofuels are still more expensive to produce than fuel oil, costing approximately 25 to 50 cents more per gallon. However, as biofuel use becomes more widespread and production rises, Brookhaven researchers expect the price to drop.

“If we can further develop biodiesel, then one economic benefit would likely be an increase in the agricultural production of biofuel feedstock in upstate New York and elsewhere in the country,” comments Tom Butcher, who heads ES&T’s energy resources division. “This could lead to the expanded use of other plant-based petroleum-replacement products, such as biolubricants and biohydraulic oil, which is already in use at Brookhaven.”

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