Energy Department to Sink $250 Million in New Bioenergy Centers

‘High risk, high return’ research to target new crops, microbial processes for future ‘cellulosic’ ethanol.

Published on: Oct 13, 2006

The Department of Energy (DOE) announced it will put up $250 million over the next five years to set up two bioenergy centers in hopes of developing new bioenergy crops and processes for the next generation of ethanol plants fueled by biomass like switchgrass or wood chips, not corn.

The announcement came on the third and final day of the Advancing Renewable Energy conference held in St. Louis and cosponsored by DOE and USDA.

Ray Orbach, DOE Undersecretary for Science

Throughout the conference, participants heard how ethanol from corn is growing from 5 billion gallons per year today to 7.5 billion gallons in the next two years, with several plants set to come on line in the next year. But most speakers add ethanol from corn alone won’t be enough to meet renewable fuel needs of the future. That’s why there’s tremendous interest in the next generation of ethanol made from cellulosic biomass, says Ray Orbach, DOE Undersecretary for Science.

“The United States is capable of producing 1 billion tons of biomass annually on 55 million acres of perennial bioenergy crops,” he says. “That would be enough for 60 billion gallons of ethanol. And it’s possible to get this cellulosic ethanol industry within the next five years.”

The focus of the bioenergy centers will be to get the best people together in hi-tech areas of the country and put them to work on the energy problem. The centers will look something like start up companies, with high risk, high return research that will crack the technological barriers to developing wide-scale and cost-effective biofuels.

That research will include learning how microbial processes break down cellulose walls so that energy can be released. “Our focus will be to produce ‘microbial machines’ for energy production through re-engineering of microbes,” says Orbach.

Research will include making the whole process cost-competitive as well as building the infrastructure and distribution network. All this will principally be the job of the private sector, but the government, through efforts such as this, serves as a catalyst.

Orbach says the goal is to establish the centers by 2008 and have them fully operational by 2009. DOE expects to lease existing space to avoid new construction costs and get the centers running faster.

“The stakes are very high,” he concludes. “We need to optimize crops and the microbial processes that will turn those crops into the energy our country needs.”