Dr. Tomasz Wiltowski

Dr. Tomasz Wiltowski, director of SIU's Advanced Coal and Energy Research Center in Carterville, discusses the center's operations while standing inside the High Bay Building in Carterville.

CARBONDALE — A decade ago, the notion of corn used as an energy source was gaining acceptance, but considered nowhere near competitive.

These days, the corn-fueled biodiesel market is about 11 to 13 percent of the energy market and getting the attention of oil producers, John Caupert, director of the Advancing Biofuels Research NCERC at Southern Illinois University Edwardsville told the group of guests gathered for SIU Energy Boost Program's first Energy Day on Wednesday. The event was co-sponsored by the Paul Simon Public Policy Institute.

The Boost Program was created in 2015 with the aid of a $4.6 million grant awarded to the Advanced Coal and Energy Research Center.

The day was held to discuss the future of energy, specifically ways of harnessing carbon dioxide and reducing its harmful impact. 

Human activities --- such as burning fossil fuels to create energy --- have been blamed for releasing carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases into the atmosphere, leading to global warming -- or the trapping of energy in the Earth’s atmosphere and causing it to warm, according to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.

Keynote speakers were Peter B. Littlewood, director of the Argonne National Laboratory in Lemont, outside Chicago, and Christopher Smith, assistant secretary of fossil energy for the U.S. Department of the Energy. Littlewood spoke about energy storage devices, such as the batteries used to power hybrid vehicles, and told the audience the challenge is to now make them lighter and capable of producing more energy. Smith talked about fossil fuels, their future, carbon dioxide and the challenge to reduce carbon dioxide emissions.

“The beauty was having these speakers here,” Wiltowski said. “We were honored to have them here.”

Caupert was one of three experts assembled to discuss "Carbon Dioxide Utilization —Research and Market Opportunities." He led the discussion with Tomasz Wiltowski, director of SIU's Advanced Coal and Energy Research Center, and Kevin O'Brien, director of Illinois Sustainable Technology Center. The discussion was facilitated by Norm Peterson, director of government relations for Argonne National Laboratories.

"We've gotten in their pocket book," eating up part of the profit the oil industry might have expected, Caupert said.

Growing up in Pinckneyville, Caupert said his father ran a corn farm off Illinois 154, right across the road from a coal mine.

He said growing up, he never envisioned that those two entities would be as reviled as they are today.

"I never thought I'd see the day when corn and coal would become bad four-letter words," he said. "We've got some PR problems."

Those assembled answered questions about the cost of energy production, noting that the method that would be sustainable would be the one that cost the least to operate. 

In part of the question-and-answer session, the group talked about the rise and fall of algae as a source of biofuel.

"It's in the mix, but it's not 100 percent of the solution," O'Brien noted. "It's still in the mix. The key thing here is economics. What's going to make economical sense."

Illinois' six biodiesel fuel producers generates 197 million gallons a year, according to the U.S. Energy Information Administration.

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Stephanie Esters is a reporter covering Murphysboro and Perry County.

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