Grants Fuel New Research in Biomass, Cellulosic Energy

U.S. government will spend $17.5 million looking at technological barriers to lower costs of renewable fuel.

Published on: Oct 11, 2006

U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) Secretary Mike Johanns and U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) Secretary Samuel Bodman today announced nearly $17.5 million for 17 biomass research, development and demonstration projects, to help break U.S. addiction to oil. The secretaries made the presentation at a Renewable Energy Conference held in St. Louis, co-sponsored by USDA and DOE.

Energy Secretary Samuel Bodman, left, and Ag Secretary Mike Johanns addressed the Renewable Energy Conference in St. Louis today. The event, which is drawing dignitaries from around the country, is a summit for new ideas and opportunities for renewable fuels in the future.

"Americans are discovering the road to energy independence is paved with natural resources grown right here at home," Secretary Johanns says. "This is a new era for America's farmers, ranchers and rural communities as they seize this moment where opportunity meets need, and where American ingenuity breaks a century long addiction to oil."

The secretaries were among several blue-ribbon speakers from public and private entities, including Archer Daniels Midland CEO Patricia Woertz and John Deere CEO Bob Lane. President Bush is expected to address the group of about 1,300 participants on Thursday.

The conference aims to further President Bush's Advanced Energy Initiative (AEI), which he introduced at his State of the Union address earlier in the year. The AEI seeks to accelerate the commercialization of clean, affordable alternative and renewable sources of energy by changing the way we power our cars, homes and businesses.

Johanns spoke enthusiastically about the future of renewable energy, especially noting the solid market investment in sectors such as biofuels. "Six years ago there were 54 ethanol plants making 2 billion gallons," he says. "Today that production has more than doubled to 5 billion gallons with 3 billion more gallons in development. Biodiesel plants went from 10 plants in 2000 to 86 plants today.

"The energy market is highly competitive, but the market appears ready to embrace these fuels," he says.

Kicking the oil addiction
Government grants announced today will spur new scientific innovation that will help us "kick our over-reliance on oil," notes Bodman. "The initiatives we're putting in place have the potential to dramatically reduce the cost of producing ethanol. The goal is to dramatically change the cost structure for motor fuels for the American consumer."

The projects selected will carry out research, development and demonstrations on biobased products, bioenergy, biofuels, and biopower. Of the $17.5 million announced today, $12.8 million is funded by USDA and $4.7 million is funded by DOE. DOE funds go to three projects developing cellulosic biomass. USDA will provide funding to address such topics as feedstock production and product diversification.

Many projects focus on developing the cellulosic ethanol industry. But Johanns would not say that this development is moving forward due to a potential corn deficit or competing demands for corn in coming years. It's unlikely that cellulosic – biomass such as switchgrass or wood chips - will replace corn as the feedstock of choice in the future, he adds.

"Ethanol plants are already out there and working," he says. "But we don't want to put all our eggs in one basket. Cellulosic and biomass has the potential to create much more energy than corn."

New energy centers based on biotech
The Energy Department is putting up $250 million over five years - $25 million a year – to fund two new bioenergy research centers, says Bodman.

Energy Secretary Samuel Bodman talked of bioenergy research centers he says will be the 'best thing we do' during his tenure.

"What we want to do, basically, is build on the biotech revolution, and direct this enormous volume of learning and experience toward energy applications," he says.

Each center will pursue high-risk/high-return research in basic science in an effort to crack the technological barriers to developing wide-scale and cost-effective biofuels. "The idea is get the very best people together in hi-tech areas of the country and put them to work on the energy problem," Bodman adds.

"I think this has the potential to be the best thing we do during my tenure as Energy Secretary," he says. "The reason I am so optimistic is that the American biotech industry really is the most advanced and most competitive in the world."