Wisconsin, Michigan Researchers Partner on Non-Food Biofuels

According to a December report in the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, Patricia Dehmer, chief science officer for the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE), was recently asked to name a program funded by her office that was producing tangible results. Her response? Madison’s Great Lakes Bioenergy Research Center (GLBRC) and five other similar research centers across the nation.

The GLBRC was one of three bioenergy research centers established by the DOE in 2007. More than 400 scientists, researchers, and staff work on GLBRC projects, and officials at the center point to that work as an example of how collaboration between academic, federal, and private sector scientists can lead to breakthrough research.

Housed at the Wisconsin Energy Institute, the GLBRC is a partnership between the University of Wisconsin-Madison and Michigan State University in East Lansing, MI. Steven Slater, the GLBRC’s scientific programs manager, says even though the center’s research is carried out on two separate campuses, it operates as a single unit. “We don’t worry about which campus does what,” he explains. “We’re sort of a center without borders.”

The GLBRC’s mission, according to Slater, is to perform the basic, early-stage research that generates technology to convert cellulosic biomass to ethanol and other advanced biofuels, and then pass that research to industry for commercialization.

Turning non-food cellulosic materials into fuel has proven to be an expensive, hard-to-scale task, but Slater feels that the GLBRC’s public and private collaborations—industry partners include DuPont, General Motors, and Miller Brewing—put it at the forefront of commercialization efforts.

Last month, a GLBRC research team published its findings in the journal Science, explaining how they use a compound called gamma-Valerolactone to deconstruct plants and produce sugars that can be chemically or biologically upgraded into biofuels. With support from the Wisconsin Alumni Research Foundation (WARF), the team will begin scaling up the process later this year.

Slater believes the key to bringing biofuels to market is lowering the cost of production. The center is targeting raw, non-food, high-cellulose feedstocks like corn stover and switchgrass. Because of their relatively low density, it’s a challenge to transport these materials to refineries in an efficient manner.

“We need to minimize the environmental impact and find energy-efficient ways to harvest, collect, and deconstruct cellulose,” Slater says. “That’s not industry’s job. They do need to understand the environmental impact, and companies do spend time looking at that, but we’re in a better position to collect that data.”

The main problems the GLBRC is working to solve is a way to “densify” cellulosic … Next Page »

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