"Growing dependence on foreign oil has long been a problem in America, but Sen. Richard Lugar has at least a partial solution: Indiana corn. The Republican senior senator supports research into alternative sources of fuel including using corn to produce ethanol, which can be used in automobiles instead of petroleum-based gasoline.

“The bottom line is that it’s a national security issue,” Lugar spokesman Andy Fisher said from Washington.

On the first day of spring, Lugar and Sen. Evan Bayh (D-Ind.) welcomed Indianapolis Motor Speedway President Tony George and the Indy Racing League to the steps of the capitol in Washington to start the first all-ethanol season for the open-wheel racing series. All Indy cars are now 100 percent fueled by ethanol.

And two days before the capitol event, IUPUI announced it is naming its newly created energy research center the Richard G. Lugar Renewable Energy Center.

Thought to be the only research center in Indiana solely studying renewable energy, the research center’s current efforts are aimed at the generation of hydrogen from renewable energy sources needed to move the U.S. to a hydrogen economy, and production of ethanol fuel cells, according to the center’s director, Andrew Hsu.

“Renewable energy research and commercialization of new energy technologies present unbelievable possibilities to strengthen U.S. national security and bolster the economy,” Lugar said in a prepared statement. “Establishment of a center dedicated to the task of reducing our dependence on foreign energy sources creates an additional opportunity for Indiana to lead the nation to a new energy future.”

Renewable energy is energy from sources that can be used more than once. For example, once oil is pumped from the ground and burned, it is completely gone. To produce more energy, you need to pump more oil. But with corn-based ethanol, once you burn the fuel you can grow more corn to produce more energy. The center’s work will help expand markets for Hoosier farmers as well as Indiana ethanol plants.

Reducing dependence on oil in America can’t come too soon.

Currently, the United States consumes roughly 20 percent of the world’s daily oil production. By 2025, the U.S. is projected to consume 28.3 million barrels of oil a day, a 44 percent increase over current consumption, and domestic production will meet only 30 percent of that need, compared with meeting 40 percent of that need today, according to the Natural Resources Defense Council, an environmental action group based in New York.

“Developments at the federal level underscore the growing awareness that renewable energy will play a leading role in ensuring U.S. energy independence,” said IUPUI Chancellor Charles R. Bantz. “Creation of the Lugar Research Center is a direct response to that recognition.”

The Lugar Renewable Research Center is only one of 19 centers based at IUPUI, and is receiving $300,000 in campus research funds. It also has grants from the United States Army Research Lab to collaborate on research into the use of renewable energy for military applications, such as in cell phones, radios, laptops and vehicles.

Hsu said the center is near agreement for a grant from the Argonne National Laboratory, which is the lead Department of Energy laboratory, for several renewable energy technologies. Other research will focus on clean combustion of renewable fuels and developing plants that produce more energy than existing plants do when used to make renewable fuels, known as cellulous ethanol.

“Ethanol does have its own pollutant problems,” said IUPUI spokesman Rich Schneider. “So they are looking at other plants that could be turned into energy.”

While corn-based ethanol does release pollutants into the air, it also produces carbon dioxide, which is then absorbed by more plants, including corn, which can then be used to produce more ethanol. “Our hope in the future is ethanol that will be produced from plants other than corn,” Hsu said. “That’s our long-term goal.”

Brazil, for example, is a leading producer of ethanol made from sugar cane. “The price of sugar in the United States is too high for it to be used to produce ethanol,” Lugar’s spokesperson said. “Corn is readily available. But you can make ethanol from anything that grows.”

Some of the center’s work will have a near-term impact, such as conversion of renewable fuels like ethanol into gasoline, said Hsu, who is also the associate dean for research and graduate programs in the School of Engineering and Technology at IUPUI.

Fuel reformers that convert ethanol to hydrogen will take longer to develop but mature products could be available in three to five years, Hsu said. Work on fuel cells that use hydrogen to power vehicles, replacing gasoline-powered engines in cars, will take 10 to 15 years.

For more on Indiana’s ethanol industry see “Bio-fuel: Is It the Key to Indiana’s Future,” NUVO cover story April 12, 2006, nuvo.net/articles/article_5709/.

Bio-fuels: the basics

1 Bio-fuel is any renewable source of energy derived from bio-mass — living organisms or their byproducts. The two most common types of bio-mass used as fuel in the U.S. are ethanol and bio-diesel.

2 Using domestic crops as bio-fuel adds to the local economy, particularly in the agricultural sector, and helps reduce the importation of oil.

3 Bio-fuels could displace nearly 8 million barrels of oil a day by 2050, roughly equivalent to the current daily demand for gasoline in the U.S., without putting any additional acres under cultivation or displacing food production.

4 Bio-fuels can reduce the emissions of fine particulates and toxic air pollutants created from gasoline burning engines by as much as 90 percent.

5 Ethanol is an alcohol-based fuel produced by fermenting and distilling starch crops that have been converted into simple sugars. The majority of the ethanol in the U.S. is made from corn, but it can also be produced from other feedstocks such as soybeans, wheat, barley or potatoes.

6 All gasoline vehicles made after 1980 are capable of operating on gasoline/ethanol blends with up to 10 percent ethanol with no modifications.

7 For a complete list of ethanol stations in Indiana, visit www.e85fuel.com.

8 Bio-diesel is a broad and general description of fuel made from vegetable oils and animal fat. It is the ultimate in recycling, as bio-diesel is essentially made from waste product that would otherwise be discarded.

9 Every vehicle that has a diesel engine can use bio-diesel fuel, up to 100 percent, with no modification.

10 For a complete list of bio-diesel stations in Indiana, visit www.biodiesel.org.