Efforts to develop sustainable fuels as an alternative to gasoline, diesel and other petroleum-derived products are receiving renewed federal support at a University of Wisconsin-based research center.
The U.S. Department of Energy renewed federal funding for the Great Lakes Bioenergy Research Center at UW-Madison for another five years. On Friday, the federal agency announced the four bioenergy research centers it supports, including Madison, will receive $590 million during that time span.
Donohue said they’re working with a renewable resource from plants known as lignocellulosic biomass. Lignocellulose is considered the most abundant biological plant material on the planet, with trees and grasses like poplar and switchgrass the major sources of the material. It contains large amounts of sugars and aromatic compounds, such as benzene, that can be used to make biofuels.
The transition to cleaner fuel sources is a key strategy to reduce greenhouse gas emissions in the transportation sector by 2050 under a national plan released in January. Transportation accounts for the largest share of the heat-trapping emissions that contribute to climate change.
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"We have learned how to make crops easier to dissolve into these juices, and we've learned how to make products like fuels and chemicals from as much of a ton of biomass as possible," Donohue said.
The center has been engineering microbes that can convert energy crops like switchgrass to fuel at the lowest cost. Donohue said they’re also making great strides in understanding the interaction of plants and roots underground and their ability to store carbon as it relates to their chemical properties. He said researchers are trying to determine how those properties change during different seasons, which will help industries that convert them into fuels or chemicals.
The center also examines where refineries may be sited to produce biofuels within 50 to 75 miles from locally grown crop material.
U.S. Sen. Tammy Baldwin said the investment will support Wisconsin research efforts to cut energy costs and address climate change.
"These resources will help Wisconsin’s research institutions continue to innovate, boosting farmers’ and producers’ bottom lines, developing cleaner energy, and moving our Made in Wisconsin economy forward," Baldwin said in a release.
Donohue said the state, which imports fuels and chemicals from elsewhere, could position itself to use locally grown biomass to make those products in Wisconsin.
Established in 2007, the center collaborates with Michigan State University and other partners. It employs more than 450 researchers, students and staff. Since its inception, the center states its partnerships have produced 1,700 scientific papers, 260 patent applications, 113 licenses or options and five startup companies.