For Ohio State Scientist Fred Michel, Sustainability Is a Way of Life

Fred Michel at his solar-powered house, next to his solar-charged hybrid vehicle. (Photo by Ken Chamberlain)

WOOSTER, Ohio -- Not too many people drive around with a solar panel on top of their cars. For Ohio State University scientist Fred Michel, that's just another way he is trying to make sustainability an important part of everything he does -- at work, in his community and at home.

A biosystems engineer in Ohio State's College of Food, Agricultural, and Environmental Sciences, Michel believes using more bioproducts and bioenergy can make a difference for the environment and also the economy. It's a belief he acts on both professionally and personally. 

On the Wooster campus of the Ohio Agricultural Research and Development Center (OARDC), where his office and laboratory are located, Michel conducts research on composting, ethanol and domestic sources of natural rubber. In all these areas, he focuses on developing more efficient and environmentally friendly ways to convert organic waste and plant biomass into usable and economically feasible products.

Michel holds appointments with both OARDC and Ohio State University Extension, the research and outreach arms, respectively, of CFAES.

"Unlike landfilling or incineration, composting recycles resources so they can be used in a more sustainable manner," said Michel, an associate professor in the Department of Food, Agricultural and Biological Engineering.

"However, it's a complex process that requires knowledge of microbial communities present in compost, developing ways to suppress plant diseases as well as animal and human pathogens that may be present in the organic matter, and engineering processes that make better composts and other value-added products."

Michel is also part of an Ohio State team working to develop U.S.-grown sources of natural rubber, including Russian dandelion and guayule. He developed a processing method for extracting rubber from the dandelions, which is now being used at a pilot plant in Wooster to produce rubber and latex for industry testing.

In the case of biofuels, he has conducted research on cellulosic ethanol pretreatment (a step necessary to maximize fuel production from wood, grasses or inedible parts of plants) and has tested and improved a technology known as cavitation that releases hard-to-reach starch and boosts corn ethanol yield. He is also studying the use of inulin, a carbohydrate found in Russian dandelion, for producing renewable fuels such as ethanol and butanol.

Beyond the lab, Michel has made it a priority to increase public awareness about the advantages of renewable energy. In 2009 he joined the Wayne County Sustainable Energy Network, of which he is now president. The network delivers a variety of educational programs in the community, organizes events focused on green energy and sustainability, and has partnered with local schools and other organizations to install solar energy systems.

Next, Michel said, the group will try to promote the implementation of large-scale renewable energy projects in Wayne County

"Our work also circles back to Ohio State, as we have been collaborating with the Agricultural Technical Institute's (ATI) renewable energy program, giving the students hands-on opportunities to design and install solar energy systems," he said. "We are also working together to install a solar power array on the ATI campus soon."

Located next to OARDC’s Wooster campus, Ohio State ATI offers two-year degrees in agriculture and related sciences and is also part of CFAES.

Michel walks the sustainability walk when it comes to his personal and family life, too.

"As a family, a few years back we started looking at ways we could reduce our carbon footprint," he said. "So we started by doing the little things, like upgrading appliances and changing to LED lights."

The "little things," however, were not enough. In 2009, Michel installed a 4-kilowatt solar energy system at his Wooster home, complemented by a 3-kW system in 2013. Together, the rooftop solar arrays provide almost 100 percent of the electricity consumed in the household. He also uses an electric lawnmower powered by solar energy.

The solar energy system, he said, will pay for itself in about seven years, and it's guaranteed to work for at least 25 years, so the energy savings can be handsome in the long term.

"Our goal is to reduce our carbon footprint as far as possible without becoming hermits," Michel said. "But our experience also shows that over time, renewable energy makes economic sense as well."

Michel has also embraced the use of renewable energy and technology to lower the carbon footprint of his commute to work. He purchased a plug-in hybrid small SUV, which came with a 1 kW-hour battery, and installed a second, 4 kW-hour battery to increase the number of miles it can drive on electricity alone.

Additionally, Michel used his solar power know-how to install a solar panel on top of his vehicle, which helps charge the batteries during the day while he is at work.

"I did some calculations and realized that my carbon footprint would be larger driving the hybrid using electricity produced in Ohio, which comes mostly from coal, than from using gasoline," he explained. "That's why I installed the solar panel to charge the batteries.

"It's always important to do the math to see if what you are trying to implement is truly sustainable."


CFAES News Team
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Fred Michel