Monday, September 24, 2007

10 Universities Paving The Way For Cellulosic Ethanol

The key to cracking the code for cellulosic ethanol — biofuel made from non-food crops and plant byproducts — could be under development in a university lab near you. While researchers have spent years trying to figure out how to effectively produce the alt-fuel, universities across the country have recently been working on moving the ball forward.

Here's our picks for 10 schools making significant strides in cellulosic ethanol research and production:

University of Tennessee (Knoxville, Tenn.): Last week, the executive committee of the University of Tennessee Board of Trustees approved a business partnership with Mascoma Corp. to jointly build and operate a five-million-gallon-per-year cellulosic ethanol biorefinery. The partnership is a result of the UT Biofuels Initiative, an effort to grow the biofuel industry in Tennessee.

University of Florida (Gainesville, Fla.): The University of Florida recently said it will build a cellulosic ethanol plant at a Florida Crystals Corp facility. The plant will be a research and development lab as well as a commercial facility and will produce between one and two million gallons of fuel each year. The plant is financed by a $20 million state grant. The school's Bioprocess Engineering Research Laboratory also has a sustained research program on biogasification of biomass; additional work in cellulosic ethanol is being done through the Florida Center for Renewable Chemicals and Fuels.

Iowa State University (Des Moines, Iowa): DuPont (DD) pledged $1 million to Iowa State University's New Century Farm. For info on other cellulosic ethanol initiatives at the school, check out their Office of Biorenewables Programs.

Purdue University (West Lafayette, Ind.): Chemical engineers from the school are working on a eco-friendly cellulosic ethanol production process that they say is more efficient than traditional methods and also suppresses the formation of carbon dioxide. Separately researchers from the University say they have an insight into the structural changes cornstalks go through in the ethanol-production process, which could "establish a viable method for large-scale production of ethanol from plant matter."

University of California, Davis (Davis, Calif.): Last year, Chevron Corp (CVX) announced that it would fund up to $25 million in research at UC Davis over five years to develop affordable, renewable transportation fuels from farm and forest residues, urban wastes and crops grown specifically for energy. UC Davis is also home to a lot of cleantech activity, including The California Biomass Collaborative, a statewide collaboration of government, industry, environmental groups, and educational institutions.

Georgia Institute of Technology (Atlanta, Ga.): Chevron has also teamed up with the Georgia Institute of Technology with up to $12 million in funding for research to make cellulosic biofuels and "hydrogen viable" transportation fuels. The school has also partnered with Atlanta-based startup C2 Biofuels.

University of Massachusetts Amherst (Amherst, Mass.): Microbiology professor Susan Leschine, a leading authority on cellulose digesting microbes, founded SunEthanol. The company licenses microbe technology Leschine developed at UMass that converts biomass into ethanol using an efficient carbon-neutral process. In August, we chatted with SunEthanol's CEO Jef Sharp about the company's Series A funding.

University of California, Berkeley (Berkeley, Calif.) & the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign (Urbana, Ill.): Let's not forget Berkeley and Illinois, which in February jointly received a whopping $500 million from British Petroleum (BP) for biofuels research. The funding is being used for the creation of the Energy Biosciences Institute (EBI), which will initially focus its research on biotechnology to produce biofuels, including ways to turn field waste, switchgrass, and algae into transportation fuels.

University of Minnesota (Minneapolis): Researchers at the University of Minnesota have developed a way to convert sawdust and waste biomass directly into a mixture of gases, called syngas, that either be burned to generate electricity or made into liquid fuels.