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LSU AgCenter hopes to turn $17 million biofuels grant into business opportunities

News Release Distributed 10/03/11

The U.S. Department of Agriculture has awarded the LSU AgCenter a five-year $17.2 million grant to speed up the process for developing biofuels and biochemicals from sugarcane and sweet sorghum.

The grant is part of a $136 million package the USDA gave to five universities with the overarching goal of helping to generate rural jobs and decrease dependence on foreign oil. The other grantees are the University of Washington, Washington State University, Iowa State University and the University of Tennessee.

The LSU AgCenter was selected because of its successful track record in biofuels development using sugarcane and in working with the sugarcane industry, according to Vadim Kochergin, a researcher at the AgCenter’s Audubon Sugar Institute and the principal investigator for the project.

“One question the USDA wants answers to is how much money can a farmer sustainably make to produce biofuels or bio-derived chemicals,” said Kochergin, who is also the newly-named director of the Louisiana Institute for Biofuels and Bioprocessing.

The economics of converting crops into fuel and other products is a major part of the grant, and extensive analyses of all the production scenarios will be conducted by the AgCenter.

“We have to address issues of harvesting, processing, storage, pre-treatment and conversion,” Kochergin said. “We may find that the price of gasoline must be at least $5 a gallon before farmers could make any money. But this is the kind of information we need.”

To carry out the project, AgCenter scientists are partnering with several companies in the biofuels business:

– A Wisconsin-based company, Virent Energy Systems (gasoline, jet fuels and diesel chemicals).

– Three California-based companies – Danisco/Genencor (isoprene), Optinol (butanol) and Ceres (seed for sweet sorghum crops).

– John Deere based in Louisiana (harvesting equipment technology).

– Florida Sugar Cane Growers Coop (biomass drying).

– MS Processors out of Minnesota (sugar engineering).

The diversity of industry partners is one of the reasons the AgCenter won the grant over more than 60 other universities, according to John Russin, vice chancellor for research.

“We have technologies that take waste materials from sugar mills and produce specialty chemicals, plastics and alcohol-based fuels,” Russin said. “Our industry partners have their own private technologies, and they will be testing these on the feedstocks we develop in Louisiana.”

One of the feedstocks that will be investigated by the AgCenter in partnership with the USDA Agricultural Research Service out of Houma, La., is a variety of sugarcane cane called “energy” cane, which has more fiber content than conventional sugarcane. It may have increased cold tolerance and provide higher biomass yield. This USDA lab is also a partner for this grant project, Kochergin said.

Another reason the AgCenter was awarded the grant was the close working relationship established already through the Louisiana Institute for Biofuels and Bioprocessing, which was started in 2009 as a way to bring scientists and industry representatives together to collaborate on projects and seek grants. Russin was the first director, and Kochergin was named director in August.

Kochergin said this grant will in no way take away from the work the AgCenter does to ensure Louisiana sugarcane farmers produce the highest sugar yields.

“The project will add value to our stakeholder community. If we are successful with this grant project, we will offer sugarcane farmers more flexibility to produce crops for more markets,” Kochergin said. “We hope to increase the stability of agriculture in the state.”

Louisiana had more than 400,000 acres in sugarcane in 2010, according to AgCenter figures, for a total value of about $750 million to the Louisiana economy.

Louisiana produces no sweet sorghum, which is a fibrous crop that can be produced on low-quality land with agricultural inputs. AgCenter research has found that this crop can be an excellent source of biomass for bioenergy products, Russin said.

About two-thirds of the grant money will be funneled into research and the remaining third into education and extension. The AgCenter will sponsor training sessions to help businesses learn new technologies for biofuels use and help farmers learn to grow energy crops.

One of the major ways the grant project will help boost biofuels development is through the expansion of the small-scale biorefinery at the Audubon Sugar Institute, Kochergin said.

“We will be able to test how some of the technologies will work in the real world,” Kochergin said, adding that the biorefinery will also be used for demonstrations and workforce training.

Sugarcane factories are biorefineries, Kochergin said. But they are in use only during the months while they grind sugar during sugarcane harvest. The technologies developed because of this grant may provide a way for these factories to be open year-round. Louisiana has 11 operating sugarcane factories.

Kochergin said the grant project has implications beyond Louisiana and should benefit the entire southeastern United States.

“We can’t guarantee but we certainly hope that new businesses will start up or that X number of jobs will be created,” Kochergin said. “But information generated as a result of the grant should bring growth and expansion in the ag sector.”

Russin said to the best of his knowledge this is the single largest grant ever received by the AgCenter.

The other universities that are partners in this grant include Southern University, Texas A&M University, the University of Arkansas at Monticello, Morehead State University in Kentucky and the University of Wisconsin-Madison.

Linda Foster Benedict
Last Updated: 10/3/2011 12:57:07 PM

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