Growing Fuel

Growing Fuel

By Elizabeth A. Davis

Fueling vehicles with ethanol made from switchgrass is a visionary and ambitious idea, and the University of Tennessee isn’t stopping there.

While finding solutions to end the nation’s dependence on fossil fuels, the university is helping Tennessee become a leader in all aspects of cellulosic ethanol production—from the farm to the fuel pump.

The goal of the University of Tennessee Biofuels Initiative is to secure sustainable, renewable, and affordable energy and at the same time establish a commercial biofuels industry in Tennessee.

The grand opening of the biofuels demonstration plant in Vonore last January was a giant step toward meeting that goal.

The 74,000-square-foot plant, one of the first of its kind in the world, was made possible through a partnership between the state of Tennessee, the university and its Genera Energy LLC, and DuPont Danisco Cellulosic Ethanol (DDCE).
The plant is a huge investment for all partners, with more than $50 million from the state of Tennessee through the Biofuels Initiative and DDCE. DuPont and Danisco, the parents of DDCE, also have invested about $100 million in proprietary research and intellectual property, as well as payment of a portion of the plant’s operating costs.

Ethanol will be produced at the plant from agricultural residue and bioenergy crops, including corncobs and switchgrass. The plant has capacity to produce 250,000 gallons of ethanol a year, but its main purpose is as a demonstration plant to optimize technologies that will be used in large-scale commercial plants.

“I believe the Vonore facility is going to be a real catalyst for additional economic activity in Tennessee,” Governor Phil Bredesen says. “This marks an important step forward in our state’s efforts to develop clean energy technology.”

Inside the biorefineryUT researchers are working on every angle of ethanol production using switchgrass—from creating the best seeds and breaking down the plant material, to determining the best harvesting methods, to developing the proper supply chain, to producing the fuel.

This is what makes UT’s work unique.

“The University of Tennessee Biofuels Initiative is the only fully integrated program that is working with farmers and the agricultural industry to reliably supply the necessary feedstock so biorefineries can produce plentiful, affordable, renewable, and sustainable fuels,” says Kelly Tiller, CEO of Genera Energy and director of external operations for the UT Office of Bioenergy Programs.

The plant in Vonore began operation in December 2009 and produced the first drops of ethanol in January. U.S. Representatives Jimmy Duncan and Zach Wamp were among the dignitaries who cut the ribbon at the facility on January 29. Long a champion for the Biofuels Initiative, Governor Bredesen was scheduled to be the keynote speaker, but inclement weather prevented his appearance.

The opening of the plant also is a big step for the cellulosic ethanol industry. Energy is a major focus for the federal government, and the Energy Independence and Security Act of 2007 mandates annual production of 36 billion gallons of renewable fuel by 2022.

The U.S. Department of Energy was represented at the Vonore ribbon-cutting event by John Ferrell, acting biomass program manager, who called the opening a “significant milestone.”

 “The Department of Energy has enjoyed a long-term relationship with the state of Tennessee and many of this project’s partners,” he said.

In Tennessee, the work on biofuels starts at the farm, and the UT Institute of Agriculture has been a key to the entire project. Someone has to grow the switchgrass for the plant, and so far more than 50 farmers in East Tennessee have signed on, with help from UT Extension’s direct work with the farming community.
Why is UT involved in biofuels? Interim President Jan Simek sums it up: It fulfills the purpose of the University of Tennessee. “This biorefinery and the entire farm-to-fuel concept exhibited in the collaboration with all of the partners demonstrate the university’s role in education, research, and economic development,” he says.