Biofuels hang in balance
Madison — Nine years ago, the University of Wisconsin-Madison was awarded its largest single federal grant ever: $125 million to launch a bioenergy research center. Now, bioenergy researchers at UW and their partners at Michigan State University are watching closely to see what the future holds for them under President-elect Donald Trump and his nominee for energy secretary, former Texas Gov. Rick Perry.
Will a Trump administration heavily stocked with climate change skeptics and oil and gas industry executives continue to fund the Great Lakes Bioenergy Research Center's effort to convert agricultural crops and byproducts into renewable fuels?
Locating the center in the upper Midwest, near farm country and the Northwoods, had seemed apt as policy-makers looked for homegrown alternatives to petroleum to help ensure energy independence for the United States. The center today is at the heart of research that aims to replace petroleum with renewable sources for chemicals and fuels — particularly agricultural sources that aren't eaten, so that using them as fuel doesn't risk driving up food prices, as can happen with corn-based ethanol.
The funding that gave the center its start, plus a follow-up grant that also totaled $25 million annually, is coming to an end in 2017. So the center has applied to the government for enough money — in the neighborhood of another $125 million — to support it for five more years.
Jim Lane, who monitors biofuels closely as editor of Biofuels Digest, wrote this past week that consternation about Trump's energy policy initiatives may be a bit overblown.
The Obama administration has focused the Energy Department's work on research and development, he wrote. "And there's no national consensus on rolling back R&D related to energy security."
And Tim Donohue, a bacteriologist who has run the Great Lakes Bioenergy Research Center since it was founded, says he's bullish about the center's ability to win another five years of funding.
"We've come a long way in the nine years that we've been funded," said Donohue, executive director of the center, which is based at the Wisconsin Energy Institute building that opened in 2013.
Donohue wouldn't divulge the exact amount of the center's latest funding request, but he said it's an amount similar to the $25 million a year the institute has been receiving. DOE has said it wanted applications for funding ranging from $12.5 million to $30 million a year.
The center's researchers are publishing papers in scientific journals at a rate of two per week, and its technological advancements have translated into nearly 150 patent applications and more than 50 licenses or options facilitated by the Wisconsin Alumni Research Foundation and Michigan State's licensing group.
"We're getting technology out the door that is moving its way into the industrial pipeline and hopefully is going to lead to new jobs and new companies in Wisconsin and elsewhere," Donohue said.
Four start-up companies have been formed to bring the center's research to market, including Lactic Solutions of Madison. Lactic Solutions was just formed by food science researcher James Steele, who has developed a genetic engineering technique for ethanol plants that would take a waste product and convert it into more ethanol.
Avoiding food crops
The research center's goal in the next five years is to focus more of its research on crops that aren't part of the food chain.
In conventional ethanol, corn kernels themselves are processed into fuel. In cellulosic biorefineries that start-up companies have opened in recent years, the feedstock is what's known as corn stover — a catchall term referring to everything on a corn stalk except what's eaten: the husks, cobs and stalks themselves.
The focus now is shifting even further away from food products to woody biomass and grasses like switchgrass as well as native prairie grasses and sorghum.
"DOE is asking us to move the chains radically further down the field and not just make incremental improvements in processing corn stover," Donohue said.
One major challenge with using ethanol in place of gasoline can be seen in the limited infrastructure for alternative energy fueling stations: There aren't many gas stations that sell the high-ethanol blends known as E85, and concerns persist about the corrosive effect of ethanol on engines.
For that reason, DOE is shifting its strategy toward technology that some researchers in Wisconsin have pioneered: "drop-in" biofuels that essentially mimic the chemical structure of petroleum fuels.
"Drop-in fuels are more desirable because they are compatible with current engine designs and fueling infrastructure," the U.S. Government Accountability Office said in a report last month.
The election of Trump and ascendance of Perry, who as a candidate for the GOP presidential nomination had urged that the Energy Department be dismantled, means there could be changes coming in renewable energy policies, including a federal renewable fuel program that calls for more use of drop-in biofuels.
But Donohue says one reason he's bullish on the center's chances for continued funding is that it was launched and first funded by Samuel Bodman, secretary of energy under President George W. Bush, not long after Bush declared that the United States needed to take steps to address its addiction to oil.
The center and the science it works on can fuel both innovation and job creation, and Donohue said it has bipartisan support in Congress.
"We are positioned to create a new industry," he said. "You and I are not driving cars just because we ran out of horses and buggies but because we invested a tremendous amount to replace transportation by horses and carriages."
Still, there's no way of knowing what the administration will do. Clues for the Bioenergy Research Center will come in the budget documents for the rest of the fiscal year that began in October as well as in the budget request the Trump administration submits in 2017 for fiscal 2018.
Lane, of Biofuels Digest, predicts that it will be harder than the new administration expects to accomplish all it might like to accomplish early in its tenure. And that could bode well for the Bioenergy Research Center.
"The administration will be far too focused on trade, immigration, tax and foreign relations to work hard on energy policy, so status quo may well be the order of the day," Lane said.