In the last of our four-part series, Dean Zappi concludes his thoughts on biofuels, bioprocessing, and how those can contribute to UL, Acadiana, Louisiana, and the world.

To read these four interviews from the beginning, start here.

Returning to gasification, I understand you discovered a resource you weren't even aware you had when you first arrived.

One of the things that has been exciting here at UL is that, almost everyday I'm thinking, "I wish had somebody in this or that area," and come to find out, there's a UL faculty member who has done work in that area. In gasification, we have John Guillory in Mechanical Engineering, who spent time in his career in gasification, actually designed some of the technology. That's the beauty of an academic environment: usually if you need somebody, they're already here. The best institutions have that situation. So it's been very exciting, as somebody who loves UL, to see that we're in that same position. Just when you think it ought to be here, there it is.

It almost seems too much of a coincidence, that just as you are arriving here, two local entrepreneurs [Harold Schoeffler and Hermann Schellstede are looking at another form of alternative energy, wind energy.

Yeah, that definitely fits into our plans. That really highlights the entrepreneurial interest of the community in alternative energy. Many of the big oil companies are looking at alternatives, plants, wind, not too long ago a major oil company signed a deal with Tyson to produce biodiesel from chicken fat. So it's not oil companies against green companies, they're all looking into alternatives.

We have probably one of the strongest entrepreneurial communities in the world here. And the wind energy that is starting off the coast of Texas and will hopefully move here off the coast of Louisiana over time, is very exciting. It's very much akin to the initiatives that started in the oil industry here in the 1940's.

Apparently, just as we are uniquely poised for biofuels and bioprocessing, we also may be uniquely poised for wind energy. The wind activity in Louisiana isn't that strong, but just a mile or two offshore is some of the most optimal wind energy in the country.

It's one of the best points in the United States, according to Herman. It's in shallow water, close to the continent, close to the coast.

The other big area right now is solar. Are you doing anything with that?

Well, now you're getting away from biofuels, and looking at other things the college is doing. Right now, the Beau Soleil home for the Solar Decathlon is a collaboration between Engineering, Architecture, Renewable Resources, and Business. We're looking at a variety of alternative energy sources, fuel cells, solar, wind.

In the world of biofuels as we see it, it's matured from an industry that was trying to develop a market. They were trying to show, "We're real, we're legitimate fuels, we won't kill the engines, we don't pollute"-- that's the benefits to our product. And they struggled to come up with some uniformity of how the product will be made and how it will perform; quality control.

And that happened a long time ago in the world of fuels-- four years ago. That shows you how novel this thing is. This market developed from 2000 into quite a big market, with an increase of about 10 times in that period. The industry has now matured to the point where the product is pretty much accepted. In fact there are a lot of government benefits and subsidies out there for them. But it's one where we don't have enough sources, raw product, feed stock, to produce it. And that's an area we're investing a lot into, which is why we want to work very closely with the LSU Agriculture Center. We're going to have to find new sources of feed stock. They're the growers, we're the converters.

Not only do you look at novel plants. For example, my old groups at MSU was looking at sewerage sludge, which we're just now starting to work in that area as well. In fact, we're collaborating on work with them. And you just don't go in there and extract oil from sewerage sludge the way you do from soy beans. It's a whole 'nother developmental effort. So as you find novel feed stocks, you just can't take off-the-shelf processing techniques and think they'll work the same.

So it's a total package. And the thrust that has to occur, is not so much on market development. I was telling someone on the phone today, it's no novel thing to put alternative energy into the electrical grid. That was done ten years ago, you may get a newspaper or magazine article out of it but that's it.

The novelty, the thing that has to be done, is to make a lot more of it, and make it cheap. That's going to have to come from the feedstocks. For most of these biofuels, feedstock costs, not processing costs, represent about 70-80% total cost. And right now, they are more expensive than petroleum. With oil at $70 per barrel, biofuels are slightly more expensive. Now if oil gets up to $100, we're getting very close. But we still can't make enough of it. With biofuels, you're really taking about displacement, not replacement. We're spending a lot of our effort on being able to make more of it, maintaining its quality, and trying to reduce costs. A lot of that is engineering and science, processing know-how.

Someone remarked that your work with sewerage sludge also addresses a peripheral but enormous problem.

That was one of my program sponsors from the Department of Energy, when I was at MSU. He sat there with an amazed look on his face, and I thought he was all fired up about all the research on processing work we were doing. He was excited about all of that, don't get me wrong, but what he was really excited about was that inappropriate sewerage treatment is one of the biggest health problems in the world. Getting clean water and disposing of sewerage is a huge problem in developing countries.

So he had this huge grin on his face and said, "You might have just developed a technique where countries who can't afford to treat their waste water, because of the fuel value in sewerage may now find that they can't afford NOT to treat waste water. So this technique has tremendous health implications to it.

The average person "releases"-- if you want to be polite about it-- about five gallons of biodiesel equivalent a year.

The industrial implications of converting waste streams to useful products are enormous. Energy costs are getting higher and higher. If you look at farming, many of the farming costs nowadays are really tied to energy costs. That's true in industry and society too. Most of industry's money, most of society's money, most of government money, is going into chemical and energy costs. And the work we're doing here at UL, cutting-edge work, has major implications to impact society for many, many years. In some cases, depending on how great our development is, it can even mean economic independence within the global market, not to mention energy independence.

And we're not even talking about all the environmental implications of this.

So bioprocessing has economic implications, environmental implications, social implications, and geopolitical implications.

The geopolitical implications are huge. It's one of those things where you pinch yourself all the time, and say "Man I'm having fun doing this research, and if we get real lucky and work real hard, we could really make a difference." Almost every kid who starts college has this dream of wanting to make money, but also doing something that matters. We're very lucky to be sitting here at a great institution like UL, working in something like biofuels, that is fun, but may really make a difference. I can tell you this: we make a big emphasis on students getting involved. Even if our technologies never get outside the lab, just from the experience the student has, we've made an impact.

Seeing as biofuels have such a broad impact on so many aspects of human life, would you care to speculate as to how your research might stimulate and support non-engineering disciplines at the University?

If you look at the business aspects of it, the industrial aspects of it, the sociological aspects of it, we're looking at the Social Sciences, the College of Business, even Medicine. Some of the stuff we're working on is in the area of nutraceuticals. It's important to note that when we're talking about biorefineries, you need to look at the petroleum refinery. A lot of the products that come out of refineries are not fuels, they're specialty chemicals. Many of them go on to make all sorts of materials, even drugs.

So when you produce a gallon of petrochemical fuel, where does the real profit come from?

In a refinery, in any of these bulk production facilities, much of your profitability is really associated with specialty chemicals. Nutraceuticals, plastics, cosmetics, construction materials, additives-- if you think about it, petroleum is responsible for most of the chemicals we use.

Right now in biorefineries, we're still trying to make our money on bulk chemicals. I think one day we're going to look back and realize that the gold mine isn't fuels, the real gold mine is in the specialty chemicals. And that's what we're looking at. We realize that if you're going to be successful in biorefineries, bulk chemicals are going to be important, but specialty chemicals may pay the bills.