U.S. Is Creating 3 Centers for Research on Biofuels
By MATTHEW L. WALD
Published: June 26, 2007
WASHINGTON, June 25 — The Energy Department is creating three bioenergy research centers to find new ways to turn plants into fuel.
The three centers, which the department described as three start-up companies with $125 million each in capital, will be in Oak Ridge, Tenn.; Madison, Wis.; and near Berkeley, Calif. They will involve numerous universities, national laboratories and private companies. The goal of the centers, which are to be announced on Tuesday, is to bring new technologies to market within five years.
The new approach supports President Bush’s goal of reducing gasoline consumption by 20 percent in 10 years.
The bioenergy centers will focus on finding naturally occurring microbes that can break down lignin, a component of plants and trees, to give access to the material inside, called cellulose. The cellulose can be converted into ethanol or other liquid fuels, like butanol and biodiesel, said Raymond L. Orbach, the under secretary for science at the Energy Department.
Today, companies trying to commercialize cellulosic ethanol use heat and acids, an expensive process.
They have focused on the cellulose itself, which is made up of six-carbon sugars, the kind that is found in grains that have been turned into fermented products like beer for thousands of years, and of five-carbon sugars, which cannot be fermented by ordinary means. These are bound together tightly, and must be loosened by biological processes.
“There has been tremendous progress,” Dr. Orbach said. “But if you don’t fix the front end, the back end isn’t going be very efficient.”
The centers will also work on creating new crops that produce lignin that is easier to deal with, he said.
Ethanol is increasingly used as a gasoline substitute, but that has driven up the price of corn. “There’s a lot of biomass in our country that has nothing to do with corn or any other food,” Dr. Orbach said in an interview. One such plentiful plant often mentioned is switch grass.
In another area, the department announced Monday that it would help establish laboratories in Texas and Massachusetts to test designs for wind turbine blades up to 300 feet long, about twice the length of blades now in common use. The size of wind turbines in use has tripled in the last five years and could triple again, but this would require blades of lighter materials that are three times the length of the longest blade that can be reliably tested now in this country, said Andrew Karsner, assistant secretary for energy efficiency and renewable energy.
The two announcements are part of a highly public campaign by the Bush administration to stress its commitment to renewable energy.
One of the new bioenergy centers will be led by the Oak Ridge National Laboratory, an Energy Department lab in Tennessee. Participants include another lab, the National Renewable Energy Laboratory, Golden, Colo.; the Georgia Institute of Technology, Atlanta; the University of Georgia, Athens, and the University of Tennessee, Knoxville.
A Great Lakes center, in Madison, Wis., will be led by the University of Wisconsin, and will include Michigan State University, East Lansing; the Pacific Northwest National Laboratory, Richland, Wash.; the Lucigen Corporation, Middleton, Wis.; the University of Florida, Gainesville; Oak Ridge National Laboratory; Illinois State University, Normal; and Iowa State University, Ames.
The third, the Joint Bioenergy Institute, will be led by the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory in California, and will include Sandia National Laboratories; Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory; the University of California, Berkeley; the University of California, Davis; and Stanford. Dr. Orbach said that the centers’ geographic diversity would help researchers examine a wide range of plants.
The centers, each to be financed by $25 million a year, are supposed to be fully operational by the fiscal year beginning Sept. 1, 2009.