published Thursday, January 28th, 2010

Tennessee: New ethanol refinery uses non-edible switch grass

BILL POOVEY, Associated Press Writer

The governor and a gaggle of corporate and college officials will gather Friday in Vonore to christen the nation's first biorefinery dedicated to turning switchgrass into "grassoline."

Officials hope the demonstration plant, which also uses corncobs as raw, non-edible material for making ethanol, will prove the process is economically and environmentally sound.

DuPont Danisco Cellulosic Ethanol LLC and University of Tennessee-Genera Energy LLC will show off the 74,000-square-foot demonstration facility that can produce 250,000 gallons of ethanol from agricultural residue and bioenergy crops. The venture between Knoxville and Chattanooga is aimed at starting commercial fuel production by 2012.

Genera Energy was organized in 2008 as a partnership with the university at Knoxville to refine cellulose and carry out capital projects of the university's Biofuels Initiative, a farm-to-fuel business model funded by the state to create a renewable energy industry.

David Richesin, who was recruited about three years ago to grow the common prairie grass at his farm in Philadelphia about 20 miles from the refinery, said he will attend the afternoon ceremony that is to include remarks by Gov. Phil Bredesen.

"The idea of green energy and all, I think it really has a great chance of working," Richesin said.

The Democratic governor has said that "when it comes to the production of clean energy and alternative fuels, (this) is an area where Tennessee can and should take the lead."

Tennessee is spending $70 million on the non-edible switchgrass initiative, which has been informally tagged "grassoline." That includes $40 million for the biorefinery and $30 million for research into growing, harvesting, storing and transporting it.

Congress has mandated sharp increases in ethanol use, requiring refiners to blend 12.9 billion gallons of biofuels in 2010, of which 12 billion gallons would be ethanol, which is mostly made from corn. The mandate soars to 36 billion gallons, mostly ethanol, by 2022.

In December, the Environmental Protection Agency said it wants more tests to determine if car engines can handle higher concentrations of ethanol in gasoline before it decides whether to increase the maximum blend from 10 to 15 percent.

Richesin said he had quit his dairy business and decided to plant on 39 acres of pasture too rocky and steep for row crops like corn or soybeans. He now has about 85 acres in the crop that is supposed to provide a profit of about $100 an acre.

Richesin said switchgrass is "extremely slow to germinate" and a lot of material to cut, bail and handle.

He said his switchgrass "averages 8 or 9 feet tall and is very thick," compared to hay.

"It is not as profitable as row crop farming but better than pasture or hay ground," he said.

Richesin is among about 40 growers who are getting state subsidies to grow the tall, thin plant that is native to the Great Plains, with the hope that the new demonstration facility will lead to a major biorefinery operation.

Supporters of cellulosic ethanol believe it can help expand the biofuels industry.

Ethanol, an alcohol obtained from the fermentation of sugars and starches, is used as an additive to or a replacement for petroleum-based fuels.

Ken Goddard, a biofuels specialist with the university's extension service, said the refinery venture "has outstanding potential for improving income in agriculture."

He said more than 2,600 acres of switchgrass have been grown in the region and another 3,000 acres may be added this year.

"We are just very excited," Goddard said. "We have so much potential. We think agriculture is certainly the most efficient way to increase our energy independence in this country."

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