Jahn: Wisconsin-based bio-energy research leading the way

By Brian E. Clark

For WisBusiness.com

If the United States is going to change its energy use habits, research coming out of places like the Great Lakes Bioenergy Research Center at UW-Madison will surely help.

So says Molly Jahn, dean of the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences at the university.

Scientists and engineers at the bioenergy center – funded by the Department of Energy with a $125 million, five-year grant – are conducting basic research on new technologies to help convert plant material such as cornstalks, wood chips and perennial native grasses to sources of energy for everything from cars to power plants.

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“It’s our hope that this work will help wean us from coal and oil,” says Jahn, who was credited in large part with bringing the center to Madison in mid-2007, less than a year after arriving from Cornell University.

The center now has a staff of around 200, most of them working out of the Microbial Sciences building on campus.

“One of the first things we did was get ourselves organized to make a run for that big grant,” she says in a new WisBusiness.com interview. “It was a thrilling process and helped me to get to know the university and its strengths.

“We have a top-notch faculty here with a tremendous amount of expertise, and it’s important that we deploy that expertise for a healthy energy future for this country.”

Jahn, who stressed the need for conservation in addition to finding new energy resources, said UW-Madison beat out many other major universities to win the grant.

“We hope to move as quickly as we can not only toward pioneering technologies, but also the responsible deployment of those technologies with good information about the potential implications for everything from land use to community economies to the price of gas at the pump,” she says.

“This is a tremendous resource, but also a tremendous responsibility,” adds Jahn, who grew up in southeast Michigan. At Cornell, she ran an acclaimed plant research lab that has signed more than 50 commercial licenses on patented vegetables.

Though work at the bioenergy center will likely have national and even international implications in years to come, Jahn said scientists will soon be able to apply their work practically in their own backyard.

That’s because Gov. Jim Doyle decided in February to install a new biomass boiler to replace coal burning at UW-Madison’s polluting Charter Street heating plant. The state agreed last year to reduce coal use at the plant under a settlement to stop a federal lawsuit.

The new boiler, to be installed by 2012, will be capable of burning biomass such as wood chips and switchgrass pellets. It will cost between $200 million and $300 million, depending on engineering considerations, officials said. The change to biomass should result in 108,800 fewer tons of coal being burned a year.

“We are committed to finding an alternative to run that plant,” she says, noting that a UW engineer has designed an award-winning machine that turns switchgrass into pellets.

“The exciting thing is that this creates a market for biomass that is within a relatively small geographic area.”

Jahn notes biofuels have been an important source of energy in some parts of the world for decades.

Though some ethanol producers in the United States have fallen on hard times – the Renew Energy plant in Jefferson filed for bankruptcy earlier this year with $100 million in debts – she says other ethanol companies are doing well.

“It was predicted that there would be an ethanol bubble and at some point there would be a correction,” she says. “People knew that with a drop in oil prices and an increase in commodity prices, the picture would change. And it has changed.

“But ethanol is here to stay in our transportation fuel sector and it’s very likely that it will continue to be very, very important as we add additional sources that can be used to create ethanol,” she says.

She’s “confident that we will continue to see progress towards an additional array of fuels that may have characteristics that are even better than ethanol as biofuels and may result from processes that are even more efficient than what we have now.”