University of Pittsburgh

Fulbright Scholar Researches India's Alternative Fuels

Bioengineer John Round (MBA, MS-ENGR '11) has worked in two starkly different types of lab environments: sterile labs where medicine is created and converted warehouse labs where fuel is made.

Given a choice, Round prefers to get his hands dirty.

"One of the things that bugged me with medicine was the sterility. It was a very isolated system. With biodiesel, you'll spill it all over yourself if you're not careful. It makes it seem like you're more involved with the production," Round says.

Round's lab background, combined with business expertise gained at the Katz School, recently landed him a Fulbright fellowship from the U.S. Department of State. The prestigious scholarship, established in 1946 by the late U.S. Senator J. William Fulbright of Arkansas, sends 1,600 scholars abroad in an effort to increase mutual understanding between the United States and other countries.

During the next nine months, Round will live in Hyderabad, India and conduct work for the Indian Institute of Chemical Technology, a research institute funded by the Ministry of Science and Technology. Hyderabad is the capital of the Andhra Pradesh state and has a population of more than 4 million people.

At first, Round will analyze jatropha, a hardy shrub that thrives in India. The plant has several benefits over other biodiesel crops. It has a higher energy content, and doesn't have to compete with food sources, because it's inedible and grows in harsh conditions.

The downside, Round says, is that companies are growing jatropha on good soil anyway. And, at this point, no one has found a benefit for jatropha's byproducts, which makes the plant less economical.

"The reason we're studying biofuels in India is because it's one of the more energy-demanding countries. More and more people are able to afford electricity, but the supply is diminishing," Round says.

In the future Round would like to work for a start-up biofuels company. He would focus on business development, tackling such issues as taking the licensed technologies and growing them to a point where the fuel is in demand.

In 2010, Round interned with a small renewable energy firm, Piedmont Biofuels, in Pittsboro, N.C. The company converts leftover restaurant grease and animal fats into fuels. Round says that Piedmont's products "fly off the shelves" at the moment petroleum costs more, but interest dries up when petroleum prices go back down.

"If we have to depend on getting the price below what Exxon can do, it'll be hard to create a viable industry. But if you can relay some other kind of value, you can become competitive on something other than price. That might be what the industry needs to take off," Round says.

While a student at Katz, Round traveled to Palermo, Italy with a team of undergraduate students to perform an energy analysis of a University of Pittsburgh Medical Center facility there. The trip was organized by the David Berg Center for Ethics and Leadership, a center within the Katz Graduate School of Business and College of Business Administration.

Round says he was drawn to the health and energy industries because of their job security and growth potential in developing countries.

"Everyone is always going to need medicine, and everyone is always going to need energy," he says.