Congressmen learn about biofuels research in visit to Sugar Research Station

Linda Benedict, Bogren, Richard C.  |  8/25/2009 2:14:06 AM

More than a dozen LSU AgCenter scientists met with two members of the U.S. House Committee on Agriculture Aug. 12 to describe their research to identify appropriate plants as sources of feedstocks to produce biofuels, as well as the technology to convert the plants into ethanol or biodiesel.

“I appreciate the opportunity to visit the LSU AgCenter and learn about the research being conducted on sugarcane,” U.S. Rep. Tim Holden, D-Pa., said. “It is exciting to hear about the possibilities of this research and its potential to help lead us down a path to lessen our dependence on foreign oil.”

Holden is vice chairman of the House Committee on Agriculture, as well as the chairman of the Subcommittee on Conservation, Credit, Energy and Research. That subcommittee has jurisdiction over soil, water and resource conservation; small watershed programs; energy and biobased energy production; rural electrification; agricultural credit; agricultural research, education and extension services.

Also at the meeting was U.S. Rep. Bill Cassidy, R-La., who is also on that subcommittee. The Sugar Research Station is in Cassidy’s district.

Holden was on a three-day trip to Louisiana to learn about the state’s alternative energy crops and their potential as a viable feedstock for biofuels. In addition to the Sugar Research Station, he visited the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s sugar research facility in Houma, the Domino sugar facility in Arabi and Verenium Corporation’s facility in Jennings.

The congressmen’s session with the AgCenter focused on the availability of plants capable of producing biofuel feedstocks on land not suitable for food crops and the technology for converting plant materials into fuels.

“The South has more acres available than other sections of the country to grow feedstocks for biofuel development,” said David Boethel, LSU AgCenter vice chancellor for research. “We can contribute through agricultural research and education to economic development in numerous ways.”

The LSU AgCenter, particularly through its Audubon Sugar Institute, has been a leader in developing the “biorefinery concept,” which envisions sugarcane mills as sites that produce fuel, value- added chemicals and steam and electric power, Boethel said.

“We think Louisiana is a unique place to grow plants for biofuel because of our long growing season and land currently not in cultivation,” he said. “In addition, we have the infrastructure in the state to handle large quantities of biomass.”

Since 2004, the LSU AgCenter has been researching fuels from sugarcane and other crops. Researchers hope to increase the value of sugarcane residues and cellulose from other plant products by converting them to sugars, which can be fermented into ethanol.

The LSU AgCenter is participating in a Department of Energy grant that has totaled $5 million since 2004 and received an additional $500,000 from the U.S. Department of Agriculture this year, said Ben Legendre, director of the AgCenter’s Audubon Sugar Institute.

The Audubon Sugar Institute’s approach is to develop new technologies that can be integrated into existing sugar mills and take advantage of capital investments, which sit idle most of the year because the sugar-processing season is only about three months long, said Donal Day, a researcher there.

Rick Bogren

(This article was published in the summer 2009 issue of Louisiana Agriculture.)

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