15 Sep Wisconsin private sector on board for Great Lakes Bioenergy Research Center
Milwaukee, Wis. – The private sector’s interest level in the Great Lakes Bioenergy Research Center is extremely high and includes a diversity of interests that are engaged in the project, according to the University of Wisconsin-Madison dean who helped write a successful grant proposal to fund the center.
Molly Jahn, dean of UW-Madison’s College of Agricultural and Life Sciences, said the recent five-year, $125 million Department of Energy grant award that established the research center will produce economic and environmental benefits for Wisconsin and the Midwest – something the private sector is keenly aware of.
“We’ve had very strong interest and have accumulated a database of companies and venture capitalists that are operating in this space and who recognize the possibilities for partnership, not only with the university system but with each other,” Jahn said before a recent Wisconsin Innovation Network luncheon in which details of the center were outlined.
“We know that universities can be very effective brokers of consortia, alignment, and collaboration within the private sector, too.”
Since news of the award, the center has not really needed to recruit companies to the effort; they have stepped forward, Jahn said. Companies like Lucigen (which has spun off a biofuels company called C5-6), Miller Brewing Co., and the Flambeau River Biorefinery in Hayward were on board as part of the grant.
Dozens of others businesses and organizations have joined the effort, including Wisconsin utilities Alliant Energy and Madison Gas & Electric. They will serve as scientific partners or collaborators with the research teams from the UW-Madison and Michigan State University, which will share the grant.
The center intends to provide a forum to facilitate those interactions with the goal of advancing the science needed to make cellulosic ethanol cost competitive with gasoline by 2012. Cellulosic ethanol would be made from feedstocks other than corn, specifically biomass material like agricultural residues, grasses, poplar trees, inedible plants, and non-edible portions of crops.
A major focus of this and other bioenergy centers will be to re-engineer biological processes in order to develop more efficient methods for converting the cellulose in plant material into ethanol or other biofuels. One area of exploration will be to develop new technology to breed or “train” plants to accumulate oil in all their leafy tissues so that it can be extracted and used for fuel.
Since the announcement of the grant award, the center has continued to “collect” interested companies and individuals, and coordinate research at the UW-Madison departments of agriculture and engineering and other colleges with activities in the area of energy.
It’s all occurring in the larger context called the Wisconsin BioEnergy Initiative, which hopes to secure additional grants – not only on the UW-Madison campus, but throughout the UW System. “We’re bringing the power of the whole system to bear on this opportunity that we know will be so, so important for the state of Wisconsin,” Jahn said.
The Wisconsin Bioenergy Initiative is broader than the DOE grant, which is designed to address bottlenecks in the production of cellulosic ethanol. In addition to energy generation, Jahn said it’s crucially important to bring forward novel, disruptive technologies that promote energy conservation and promote the “sustainability of the enterprise.”
The most dramatic example of a disruptive technology in energy conservation is the switch to a completely different type of fuel – away from fossil fuels – or vastly more efficient engines. These achievements are likely to come from a host of disciplines and public-private cooperation.
“We see the generation of fuels, disruptive technologies in conversation, and sustainability as core thrusts,” Jahn said.
Tim Donohue, principal investigator for the grant and a professor of bacteriology at UW-Madison, said the nation will need to convert about one billion tons of cellulosic biomass into ethanol per year to meet the goal of producing gas with 30 percent ethanol content, and much of the raw material is located in the eight-state Great Lakes region.
The raw material, combined with Wisconsin industry strengths such as small-engine manufacturing, create synergies for the research center.
“The raw material is here,” said Donohue, who also serves as director of the Wisconsin Bioenergy Initiative. “We need the technology.”
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