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Local projects raise awareness of switchgrass as biofuel

News Sentinel business writer Roger Harris let us know about this  biofuel seminar taking place next week -- he has more information about the event on his Rant$ and Rave$ blog.

To raise awareness of clean energy technologies and potential job opportunities, the Center for Workforce Education at Walters State Community College in Morristown is holding a seminar next week on switchgrass production and bioenergy.

The event is at 9 a.m. Tuesday, July 27, in Room 110 of the Clifford "Bo" Henry Technology Building.

The seminar's presenter, Dr. Sam Jackson, is also involved with an ongoing University of Tennessee project to grow and improve switchgrass for commercial use.

The University of Tennessee Biofuels Initiative is monitoring more than 1,000 acres of improved varieties of switchgrass for biofuel research.

The planting is part of a US DOE project designed to help make bioenergy production from renewable resources more efficient, cost-effective and sustainable. Dr. Sam Jackson and Dr. Nicole Labbe, UT biofuels researchers, are heading up the project team that also includes UT Extension biofuels specialists and partners at Ceres and Dupont Danisco Cellulosic Ethanol. Together with farmers from nine east Tennessee counties, the team has planted approximately 1000 acres of improved varieties of switchgrass, according to a press release.

Throughout the year, the growth and yields from these fields will be compared to the growth and yields of a different 1,000 acres planted with the standard switchgrass variety. These acres have been established on private farms as part of the UTBI farmer incentive program that now totals nearly 6,000 acres of switchgrass.<

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The idea is to improve switchgrass yields to help meet the 16 billion gallon level of production required by the national Renewable Fuels Standard for cellulosic biofuels by 2022. The research and development being conducted in this project could have significant national impact on bioenergy production from cellulosic feedstocks. Improving per acre yields of biomass from dedicated energy crops like switchgrass will significantly reduce the land required to meet the RFS goals.

Jackson says the project will have four phases: comparing the large-scale production of the different varieties of the energy crop, analyzing the chemical and structural characteristics of the varieties, evaluating pre-processing techniques at Genera's Biomass Innovation Park in Vonore, and measuring the ethanol yield of the various varieties through the demonstration-scale biorefinery. 

Kyle Althoff, the Director of Feedstock Development at DDCE noted that this project provides a great opportunity for collaboration across the value chain for advanced biofuels, "By comparing the  cellulosic ethanol conversion yields of these different varieties grown by local farmers, we will have a commercial demonstration of the economical, technological, and environmental impacts of each variety.  It is integral for the biofuels industry to understand the effects that such variables have from the point the seed is planted through to the actual conversion into ethanol."

The state initially invested $70 million in 2007 to establish the UTBI for the construction of a demonstration-scale biorefinery as well as for farmer incentives to grow the new energy crop and for research to help develop a new farm-based bioenergy industry for Tennessee. Dr. Kelly Tiller, program leader for external operations for the UT Center for Renewable Carbon and president and CEO of Genera Energy says the $2.3 million investment in the variety comparison project brings the total return on the state's investment to more than 130 percent.  "The state remains well positioned to be a national leader in biobased energy research and development. This planting is the next logical step in developing a complete farm to fuel model," she said.  

The UTBI estimates that Tennessee farmers could sustainably produce enough switchgrass by 2025 to produce more than a billion gallons of ethanol annually on some 1 million acres without displacing the production of food and fiber crops.

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