Montana State University
TitleRenovation of Cobleigh 308 for Sustainable and Renewable Energy Research Request Date2012-11-26
DepartmentChemical and Biological Engineering
RequestorJeffrey Heys Phone406-994-7902
Campuses Bozeman Billings Havre Great Falls FSTS Extension MAES
Cross Depts  
Proposed Dates Start: March 1, 2013 End: June 15, 2013
Renewable and sustainable energy research is growing in the Chemical and Biological Engineering (CHBE) department. There are new externally funded projects on algal biofuels, grid-level energy storage, and the conversion of waste biomass into fuel (new faculty member). With this growth comes the need for state-of-the-art facilities for students to conduct the research. To fill this need, the CHBE department has identified a former computer lab for use as a cutting-edge renewable and sustainable energy lab. Renovation of this space into an energy research lab will benefit a significant number of undergraduate and graduate students.
Primary: Objective D.2: Enhance infrastructure in support of research, discovery and creative activities.

Secondary: Objective S.2: Physical Resources. Enhance aesthetic appeal and functional quality of MSU physical resources to support high quality learning, research and work environments.

Secondary: Objective D.1: Elevate the research excellence and recognition of MSU faculty.

Secondary: Objective I.1: Increase the integration of learning, discovery and engagement.
Funding Type: One-Time Only Funding Base (3-yr Recurring) Funding
  FY13 FY14 FY15 Base ($) OTO Startup ($)   FTE;
Materials & Supplies              
Contracted Services 85000             
Other Operations              
TOTAL 85000     
Please comment, if necessary, regarding cost and requirements.

Cost estimates and preliminary design for this project have already been obtained from Facility Services using F&A funds.  The cost greatly exceeds F&A funds available to the department, however.  The detailed cost estimates and preliminary design details are available upon request (

Describe the Proposal

The Chemical and Biological Engineering department has a number of both new and ongoing research projects that are closely related to each other and to sustainable and renewable energy research.   Space limitations are currently preventing the growth of research in this area.  For example, research in the renewable energy area is currently being conducted using borrowed space from multiple departments and located in multiple buildings.  The development of new space would help the research to be more efficient and productive, and, to achieve this goal, a recently vacated computing lab (Cobleigh Hall, room 308) has been identified as an ideal location for a new sustainable and renewable energy research laboratory.  The objective is to renovate COBL 308 into a state-of-the-art energy research laboratory used by multiple faculty, projects, and students.  This renovation will enable a significant expansion in sustainable and renewable energy research capabilities, external funding levels, and undergraduate and graduate student research opportunities. 

Faculty within the Chemical and Biological Engineering department are expected to have over $1.5 million in research expenditures this fiscal year in the renewable energy area.  (Note that these research expenditures are through multiple departments and centers, but are connected because they all have CHBE PI’s or co-PI’s.)  Additional state-of-the-art laboratory space will allow more proposals to be considered, and these additional proposals should generate an additional $500,000 - $800,000 based simply on the increase in research space and capability.  In short, MSU should rapidly recoup its investment in this laboratory renovation.  Further, there are currently 10-15 undergraduate and graduate students working on these projects.  Additional laboratory space will allow that number to increase by 3-5 individuals.

The renovations to COBL 308 that are proposed include the instillation of chemical lab benches, installation of sinks and safety showers, the installation of chemical hoods for ventilation, and the installation of additional electrical power for the laboratory equipment.  The specific laboratory equipment for each individual project, however, will be purchased separately through external grants.  Detailed plans for this renovation and cost estimates have already been obtained and are available upon request.  To justify the renovation plan, a description of the research projects that will share this lab space is provided below.

Multifunctional Electochemical Devices for Grid-Level Energy Storage

Renewable energy resources such as wind and photovoltaics differ from traditional power plants because their “fuel” is not always available for energy conversion. Furthermore, the time varying nature of renewables requires utilities to keep active a margin of spinning reserve and fast-response, low-efficiency plants that effectively make renewables less green. Establishing advanced, high-efficiency storage and conversion technologies would mitigate these drawbacks and increase the incentive for renewable energy investment. The ideal renewable energy storage device provides high round-trip efficiency, long life, and a combined transient and steady state power delivery capability. Research proposed below will identify the fundamental scientific and engineering considerations required to develop a multifunctional electrochemical device (MFED) that can serve as a battery, a fuel cell or an electrolysis source depending on changing electrical load conditions. Our ultimate goal at the end of this program is to have developed a single, unitized device that integrates high temperature electrolysis with the long-duration, constant power delivery characteristic of a fuel cell and the short-time, transient power delivery capability of a battery. This integration would dramatically reduce system complexity associated with combining discrete devices, would eliminate components running on idle, and may promote synergistic effects not present in separate devices. The liquid metal electrode concept has been demonstrated at a basic level, but as currently conceived, these devices are difficult to stack to reasonable electrical terminal potentials.  Furthermore, without research utilizing engineered microstructures and interfaces to isolate electrode features, battery/electrolysis functionality in a single device is not currently feasible. The MFED will overcome these limits of using liquid electro-catalysts by controlling interfacial energies and capillary forces to confine the liquid metal to a pore structure of an engineered ceramic scaffold that also supports reversible electrochemistry.

Lignocellulosic Biomass to Renewable Fuel

Converting lignocellulosic biomass into sustainable chemicals and fuels is of major interest to reduce the dependence on fossil fuel sources. In 2009, renewable energy accounted for 8% of the energy consumption in the United States, with fossil fuels compromising the majority of consumption. The Department of Energy forecasted that by 2035, the amount of liquid fuels consumed in the U.S. from biofuels should increase 200% due to the Federal Renewable Fuels Standard, which requires 36 billion gallons of renewable fuel to be blended into transportation fuels by 2022. Ideally, liquid fuels would be made from second generation feedstocks (e.g., crop and forest harvest residues), compatible with current combustion engines, and chemically identical to those obtained from petroleum. A promising feedstock is lignocellulosic biomass, which contains cellulose, hemicellulose, and lignin and is abundant in the form of corn stover, pulp and paper mill waste, food waste, and switch grass.  Due to the complex nature of lignocellulosic biomass, important questions need to be answered to transition from petroleum refineries to biorefineries, and that is where this research will focus. To produce the platform molecules, chemicals, and fuels from renewable resources in high yields, novel reaction pathways, stable catalysts, and highly-efficient processing methods need to be developed.

To perform this research, proper equipment will be required. Hoods are necessary due to the use of hydrogen and the nature of the chemicals used during the reactions. Access to compressed air, water, and vacuum is required in order to complete the experiments. Bench space will be needed to run experiments as well as provide an area for the analytical equipment (e.g., gas chromatograph). This work will require multiple outlets, which will increase the electric load of the lab space. Some equipment requires dedicated circuits, and many pieces of equipment will require 208V power. Space for chemical storage and gas cylinder tanks is also necessary.

Sustainable Development of Algal Biofuels

The ChBE Department was recently awarded two research grants totaling more than $2.15 Million with Dr. Robin Gerlach as the PI and Dr. Brent Peyton as the co-PI.  Both projects are addressing the major need expressed by a recent report from the National Academy of Sciences titled “Sustainable Development of Algal Biofuels in the United States” , which states that “… algal biofuel production sufficient to meet at least 5 percent of U.S. demand for transportation fuels would place unsustainable demands on energy, water, and nutrients”. 

The NSF funded project will develop low-energy chemical and biological culturing and separation processes that can be coupled with nutrient and water recycle.  The global warming potential (GWP) as well as other environmental, economic and societal impacts will be evaluated. 

The DOE project will focus on the utilization of low quality water and nutrient sources such as domestic wastewater and dairy manure.

The projects will support four graduate students and two postdoctoral researchers for the next 3.5-4 years and will utilize experimental systems from the reagent tube scale to the 200L algal raceway scale.

Describe the broader impacts and benefits of this proposal


The renewable and sustainable energy research that is ongoing within the CHBE department is extremely cross-disciplinary.  It is being conducted with faculty, undergraduate and graduate students from a number of other departments and centers on campus including Microbiology, Center for Biofilm Engineering, Mechanical Engineering, Civil Engineering, Mathematics, Chemistry, Thermal Biology Institute, Land Resources and Environmental Science, and many others.  Hence, this laboratory will not just benefit students in CHBE, it will be used by a large number of students from all over campus that are connected by a common interest in renewable and sustainable energy research.

This laboratory will also have an impact on undergraduate courses in a variety of ways.  First, the department has created a Core 2.0 course, ECHM 205CS – Energy and Sustainability, whose content will be impacted by the research being performed in this lab.  This course is taken by 90-150 MSU students every semester, so the development of new course content will have a wide impact.  Second, smaller classes will be able to use the renovated lab for observing or even conducting special experiments in the lab.  For example, smaller classes could divide into groups, grow algae in the laboratory, and then analyze the algae for biodiesel production.  This type of course-based research is not currently possible in any of the existing teaching laboratories available to CHBE students.  Third, undergraduates that are interested in renewable and sustainable energy research will have an opportunity to conduct independent research projects within the lab, under the supervision of faculty and graduate student mentors.

The research that will be conducted in this lab will have an impact on the broader community and citizens of Montana.  Research on the conversion of waste biomass into biofuels and commodity chemicals is especially important in this regard.  The ability to convert what is basically a byproduct from agriculture production into a valuable product would have a significant economic impact on the agriculture industry in Montana.  Similarly, the ability to convert lignin, a byproduct of paper production that is currently burned, into valuable commodity chemicals would have a significant impact on the forestry industry.

Implementation Plan

All of the preliminary design and cost estimate work has already been completed.  The preliminary work included an estimate of 2-3 months in total for all the renovation work.  Of course, the renovations may not be able to begin immediately due to other work being performed on campus, but, even using a pessimistic estimate for starting delays and total construction time, all work should be completed within 5 months of the initiation of the project.

Assessment Plan

The renovation described in this proposal is focused on achieving two objectives: (1) increased undergraduate and graduate access to a cutting-edge renewable and sustainable energy research lab, and (2) increased external grant funding for energy research.  The number of undergraduate and graduate students regularly (daily) working in the lab is expected to be 3-8 individuals.  For the renovation to be considered successful, at least 3 individuals must be regularly working in the lab.  For the second objective, it is often impossible to link a single laboratory to a specific amount of external grant funding.  However, it is anticipated that an additional sustainable energy lab in the department will increase total external funding in that area by at least 20-50%.  Success in this area is defined as achieving at least a 20% increase in external funding for sustainable energy research.

If assessed objectives are not met in the timeframe outlined what is the plan to sunset this proposal?

If the assessed objectives are not met, the lab will be repurposed for research in another growing area within the department.  For example, there is also a need for additional laboratory space for biochemical engineering, genetic engineering, carbon sequestration, high temperature corrosion, fuel cell, complex fluids, computational bio-transport, and magnetic resonance microscopy research.  All of these research areas, with the exception of computational bio-transport research, could be performed in the renovated lab based on the general nature of the proposed research.  The specific use of the research space would be determined based on the number of students that would use the space and the amount of new research expenditures generated – the same objectives described previously in the assessment plan.

Department Head: Jeffrey Heys (
Dean/Director: Brett Gunnink (
Executive/VP: Tom Mccoy (