UTâ's Biofuels Initiative

Amid all the turmoil at UT over whoâ’s in charge of research, one big undertaking thatâ’s moving toward fruition without controversy is the plan for a pilot plant to produce ethanol from switchgrass.

This biofuels initiative will put Tennessee in the forefront of producing ethanol from sources other than corn. Because of constraints on diverting any more of the nationâ’s corn crop or acreage without skyrocketing effects on food costs, switchgrass and cellulosic plants are widely viewed to have far more upside potential toward meeting national goals for reducing dependence on oil as a source of fuel. Switchgrass is a hardy plant that can grow on almost any soil, and ethanol derived from it has far lower emissions of greenhouse gases than gasoline.

Fortified with $73 million in state appropriations, UT has picked a 40-acre site in a Vonore industrial park for a facility that is expected to start producing five million gallons a year of ethanol by 2010. The university has also reached a partnership agreement with Mascoma, a Cambridge, Mass.-based firm, for operation of the plant and collaboration on research aimed at making the cost of switchgrass ethanol commercially competitive.

Both the site and the agreement with Mascoma are subject to approval by UTâ’s Board of Trustees and by Gov. Phil Bredesen. Trustees are expected to act at a special meeting on Sept. 19, and UTâ’s Executive Vice President David Millhorn is seeking Bredesenâ’s approval this week.

Millhorn says he canâ’t talk about the specifics of the agreement until itâ’s been approved other than to say, â“Weâ’ve been working out a term-sheet that Iâ’ve agreed on and Mascoma has agreed on.â” On its website, the company claims to be â“playing a pivotal role in the eventual replacement of gasoline with cleaner, low-cost, renewable ethanol.â”

Kelly Teller, the UT professor of agricultural economics who has been spearheading the project, says, â“Mascoma has the best-in-class technology and is the best fit.â” She anticipates that Mascomaâ’s investment in the Vonore facility might equal the $40 million that UT is putting into its construction.

Vonore represents an optimum location, she says, because itâ’s close to UT and ORNL researchers who will be involved on an ongoing basis and to rural areas where the switchgrass will be grown. Transporting some 70,000 tons of bulky switchgrass needed to yield five million gallons of ethanol on a pilot basis poses a logistical challenge, but the Vonore site offers rail, road, and water access.

The state has also earmarked more than $8 million for grower incentives to produce the crop. Another $10 million to $12 million for research is aimed at driving down the cost of switchgrass ethanol in two ways: 1) by genetically engineering the plant to nearly double present yields of six tons per acre; and 2) by developing enzymes that will increase ethanol extraction from the cellulose to well over 100 gallons per ton from 80 gallons presently.

This research effort will be centered at the Joint Institute for Biological Sciences (JIBS) in Oak Ridge where UT and ORNL researchers work in tandem. A recent $125 million (over five years) Department of Energy grant to ORNL for bioenergy research may also figure into the equation.

Although the five million gallons expected to be derived from the Vonore facility would make it the largest cellulosic ethanol plant in the country, its output is just a drop in the bucket in relation to 150 billion gallons of annual U.S. gasoline consumption. The Bush administrationâ’s goal is to increase biofuels production to 35 billion gallons by 2017, with an ever-increasing portion derived from cellulosic ethanol.

Millhorn envisions that by then Tennessee will be producing over a billion gallons a year at ten or more plants scattered around the state. He places the economic benefits to the state, including growers, haulers and plant workers, in the hundreds of million dollars concentrated in the poorer rural areas.

Just what role Mascoma will play remains to be determined. Millhorn says the deal thatâ’s about to be signed with the company pertains purely to the pilot plant. But Mascomaâ’s president Colin South was recently quoted as saying, â“When we put this plant here it represents the future of our business.â” And its involvement at this early stage would certainly appear to give it a leg up on participating in the growth if and when it becomes commercially viable.

The biofuels initiative has avoided being caught up in the current controversy over whether the UT system hierarchy or the flagship Knoxville campus should control various research endeavors because the initiative is already system-centric. The Institute of Agriculture, which overseas the College of Agriculture, reports directly to UT President Petersen. And because JIBS is located in Oak Ridge, itâ’s already somewhat removed from the turf-wars that are raging in Knoxville. â" Joe Sullivan

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