11/14/2012 05:50 pm ET | Updated Jan 14, 2013

Say Cheese: Riding Alternative Biofuel to Energy Independence

The election may be over, but our country's need to become energy independent continues. Realizing the goal of making America self-sufficient in energy remains a ways off, but advances in the scientific community are making that future less distant.

It was with this goal in mind that we -- members of the BioEnergy Center at Utah State University, consisting of a group of scientists and engineers, along with Dr. Bruce Bugbee from the College of Agriculture -- worked to make renewable, low carbon footprint fuels from waste streams and carbon dioxide. Our efforts resulted in a yeast biodiesel derived from the industrial waste of cheese production.

With fuels in hand, we set out to test their performance at the Utah Salt Flats Racing Association's 2012 World of Speed event in September. Over the summer, a team of students from the college of engineering under the direction of Dr. Byard Wood, built a streamliner dragster with a small (1 L) diesel generator engine. After filling it up with our cheese-waste fuel, we watched as the 22-horsepower speedster set a land speed record at 64.4 mph in the I/DS class. Although this may seem rather pedestrian for a modern diesel pickup truck, it is not a trivial speed for a two cylinder, 1 L diesel engine. We were proud to be the lone entry in the race running on biofuel, but the real accomplishment of the event was working together to help invent new alternative fuels that will benefit our country.

In researching alternative biofuels, our team used special microbes, including microalgae, yeast and bacteria, and figured out how to upgrade sugars into high-energy fats, which can be converted into biodiesel -- a direct substitute for petroleum diesel. We used byproducts of sugar derived from the cheese processing industry, which eventually powered our dragster. Compared to making biofuels from food crops, like corn ethanol, microbial generated biofuels do not require prime farmland or freshwater for their cultivation. Instead, microalgae not only tolerate salty or brine water, but also utilize sunlight and carbon dioxide to make fats that can be used for fuels. The biofuels produced from these microbes offer a better alternative to bioethanol because they are renewable, home grown and have a much smaller carbon footprint.

After creating a small amount in the lab, the next step was developing a biofuel on a large enough scale to run in the dragster. Upon successfully producing gallon quantities of fuels from each of the microbial sources, we commenced testing the properties of these fuels in diesel engines to remarkable results. We discovered that the microbial biofuels have excellent properties, comparable to properties of soybean-based biodiesel, and in some cases, when compared to other biodiesel or diesel fuels, have superior features, such as lower NOX emissions (a major contributor to smog and acid rain).

At the event, our improved emissions led the announcer to encourage spectators to experience the car's unique exhaust aroma for themselves. Thankfully, it didn't smell like burning cheese waste, but like someone was baking bread. In the coming year, our team plans to return to the salt flats with additional fuels from microalgae and bacteria. We don't know if they will smell as good as our yeast-powered solution, but we hope they prove to be just as useful in helping our nation find new and unexpected sources of energy.