World-record biofuel research shared with community

Nicole Green, graduate student in biochemistry, asks Kasia Kornacki, graduate student in biochemistry and molecular biophysics and presenter for the Science on Tap event, a question regarding biofuels on Feb. 24, 2016. (Raquel Borck | The Collegian)

Nestled back in the upper balcony of the Tallgrass Tap House and accompanied by food and beer, community members gathered to hear about record-breaking scientific research by K-Staters at the second Science on Tap on Wednesday. The event was co-hosted by the College of Arts and Sciences and the Sunset Zoo.

Kasia Kornacki, graduate research assistant in biochemistry and molecular biophysics and Sunset Zoo science communication fellow, presented the science behind her biofuels research project, which she said strives to create a more sustainable alternative fuel source.

Kornacki said the “very special kind of oil” the project focuses on is similar to cooking oil, such as canola oil.

Timothy Durrett, assistant professor of biochemistry molecular biophysics, is Kornacki’s overseeing professor and partner for the graduate research project.

According to Kornacki, they currently hold the world record of 91 mole percentage of acetyl-TAGs within their second generation seed lines. The acetyl-TAGs within the seed signals that the plants have the characteristic to contain the special oil.

This science means their project has a high success rate with their biological adjustment to the carbon-based plant they are working with in labs, Kornacki said.

Kornacki said she wants 100 percent of seeds produced by their plants to have the special oil.

This type of research was attractive to her because of its appeal to sustainability and alternative fuels, specifically plant and vegetable oil, Kornacki said.

“When I came to K-State and found (out) about my professor doing this kind of research, I wanted to jump in on it immediately,” Kornacki said.

She presented an overview of the project and science behind it, stopping for discussion among tables of community members. The forum then resumed with time delegated for questions.

Based on their research, the carbon footprint of the oil is less than ethanol and other current petroleum-based fuels.

“This entire process from planting it to producing the oil is actually carbon neutral, meaning that it will not release any more extra, unwanted carbons into the atmosphere,” Kornacki said in response to an audience member’s question about carbon emissions.

“It will not contribute to more pollution,” Kornacki said.

One of the other useful qualities of the oil is its ability to stay liquid at temperatures below freezing and reduced viscosity, which is how runny a liquid is, Kornacki said.

“That is the goal,” Kornacki said in response to a question about whether this fuel, if used in diesel engines, would not gel up when exposed to normal freezing temperatures. “When we have this oil in big amounts, it will not gel up. In tiny amounts it’s perfectly fine. It should be fine.”

These practical examples, among other agricultural benefits, of how science could be affecting community members has drawn in participation. January’s event was also well attended by about 50-60 community members, according to Ella Casey, assistant director for the Sunset Zoo.

Nicole Wade, education specialist for Sunset Zoo, said K-State’s College of Arts and Sciences partnered in making the events happen.

“Michi Tobler, who is in the Department of Biology, was actually instrumental in hooking us up with the right people within the graduate school and other departments,” Wade said.

Kornacki was one of several accomplished local scientists featured at Science on Tap.

The next event will be held on March 23 and will feature the winner of K-State’s Three Minute Thesis competition, Ryan Schmid, a graduate student in entomology.

He attended Kornacki’s presentation and said he was excited for the event. He will speak on his research about a pest of wheat.

Alice Harris, graduate student in entomology, said community members should be interested “if you like eating cookies and cake.”

“We try to relate it to people’s food,” Schmid said.

The Sunset Zoo has a strategy for hosting the free event at the Tallgrass Tap House on Poyntz Avenue, according to Casey. The zoo wanted to create “an informal way to talk about science,” Casey said.