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State wants to encourage industrial biotechnology

Most of the biotech companies you'll hear about are developing new drugs, genetic tests or similar life-science advances. But some are merging biotech with Wisconsin's old signature industries: agriculture and forest products.

"Neither of those is exactly rolling in cash right now. They're tough industries," said Pat Meier, director of Wisconsin's Consortium on Biobased Industry, at an economic development meeting in Madison on Wednesday.

Labor-intensive and facing stiff competition, they could benefit from more profitable ways of marketing the same crops. Some call it white biotech: the use of living cells as "factories" to produce useful industrial products more efficiently than existing mechanical processes.

Meier said the state is looking for ways to encourage more entrepreneurs to enter the field, in hopes of bettering not only the local biotech industry but also the agriculturalists and paper producers. The Consortium on Biobased Industry consists of 18 appointees by governor Jim Doyle tasked with figuring out what state policies would do that most effectively.

Biotech research could find uses not just for the crops, but for byproducts that are currently discarded as waste. That's an idea that has been successfully played out before. Whey, one of the proteins in milk, was once a waste product of cheese making that was disposed of by the ton on fields or in riverways. But research into its nutritional properties helped make it into a profit center for many cheese companies.
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"All of the waste from one process becomes the feedstock for the next process," said Meier, describing an ideal biobased industry.

One of the most prominent such agricultural products is ethanol, which can be derived from corn and even more efficiently from switchgrass and other crops, then mixed with petroleum fuel. The Wisconsin Assembly is considering legislation that would require regular gasoline sold in the state to contain 10 percent ethanol.

Tom Still: Wisconsin’s promising bio-refining future won’t run on ethanol alone

John Imes: Wisconsin can lead the nation to energy independence

Then there's biodiesel, made by removing glycerin from vegetable oil or animal fat. A new plant in DeForest is expected to produce 20 million gallons a year. Since diesel consumer vehicles aren't widely available in the U.S., it will likely be long before biodiesel cars roam the streets, if ever. Commercial vehicles or generators are likely markets.

The glycerin, meanwhile, could end up in soaps, hydrogen fuel cells, antifreeze, steel-mill furnaces, or paintballs, said Mike Spahn, general manager of Anamax Grease Services, LLC, in DeForest, which is operating the plant.

Related WTN news: Biodiesel plant being built in DeForest to make alternative fuel

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