Tennessee's efforts to be a leader in biofuels research and development took another leap forward as the U.S. Department of Energy announced that the University of Tennessee and the Oak Ridge National Laboratory will manage a new $125 million bioenergy research center.
The center, one of three funded by the DOE's Office of Science from more than 20 proposals, was announced on June 26.
The Bioenergy Science Center will study how to more efficiently extract cellulose from plants such as switchgrass and poplar trees. Cellulose can be converted to fuels such as biodiesel and ethanol, reducing the demand for gasoline and diesel fuel.
ORNL's Martin Keller will serve as the center's director, and Dr. Neal Stewart, a plant molecular geneticist with the UT Agricultural Experiment Station, is among the researchers participating in the team effort.
In addition to ORNL and UT, the DOE Bioenergy Science Center partners are Dartmouth College, the University of Georgia, the Georgia Institute of Technology, the Samuel Roberts Noble Foundation and the National Renewable Energy Laboratory; ArborGen in Summerville, S.C.; Diversa (now Verenium Corp.) in San Diego, Calif.; and Mascoma in Cambridge, Mass. The team also includes seven individual researchers from across the country.
The DOE award comes two weeks after the Tennessee state legislature approved a $61 million package for bioenergy research at UT and ORNL. As part of that package, called the Tennessee Biofuels Initiative (http://agriculture.tennessee.edu/Biofuel/), the state is funding construction of a 5 million gallon-per-year pilot biorefinery for research and demonstration of biomass-to-ethanol conversion. The Initiative includes incentive payments for farmers to grow switchgrass as a feedstock for the biorefinery.
UT is serving as the lead institution for the state-funded effort. Tennessee Governor Phil Bredesen, who attended a press conference at ORNL, said, "These two investments together position Tennessee and the South to be among the leaders in the emerging field of bioenergy."
UT Vice President for Agriculture Dr. Joseph DiPietro voiced his gratitude to state leaders for their forethought and support. "We are extremely grateful for the confidence that our elected officials have shown us by supporting the Tennessee Biofuels Initiative," he said. "The project epitomizes the research, education and outreach missions of our land-grant institution."
Dr. Tom Klindt, interim dean of the UT Agricultural Experiment Station, emphasized that recent investments in the region in biofuels research and technology development exceed $200 million. “Tennessee is becoming a bioenergy research hub,” he said. “This level of investment in agricultural research will benefit rural economies and consumers from all walks of life.”
Klindt said the ultimate goal of the research is an affordable alternative fuel for consumers in the form of cellulosic ethanol and a sustainable bioeconomy.
For more information on the DOE Bioenergy Science Center, its partners and facilities, see www.bioenergycenter.org.