Currently unused biomass could be used to make valuable fuels

The director of the Great Lakes Bioenergy Research Center at UW-Madison plans to produce valuable fuels and chemicals from currently unused biomass.

“The goal is to create technologies to convert non-edible or so-called lignocellulosic plant material into alternative sources of fossil fuels and chemicals,” Tim Donohue said earlier this week at a discussion held by the Wisconsin Technology Council.

That includes wood, as well as switchgrass and other native prairie grasses. Citing numbers from the U.S. Department of Energy and the USDA, Donohue said more than 1 billion tons of this biomass are produced every year in the United States from existing agricultural forestry and other activities.

None of that biomass is currently being used for economic benefit, according to Donohue.

“It’s our job to try and do that,” he said. “We think about economics, we think about the environment, and we think about technological sustainability. We want to create value from every piece of that biomass.”

Donohue said if half of the biomass produced every year was used to produce fuels and chemicals, then 30 percent of the products derived from oil, coal and natural gas could be replaced.

“Petrochemicals and fuels are a multi-trillion dollar a year industry, for this country, so one-third of that is a big number,” he said. “That’s a lot of jobs; that’s a lot of economic opportunity.”

He said this strategy also represents an opportunity to develop new fuel and chemical economies for the state.

The petrochemical industry makes about half of its profits by selling chemicals, according to Donohue, despite that only coming from 10 percent of each barrel. The other half comes from fuels, making up about 75 percent of each barrel.

“So if we could make chemicals as well as fuels, the economics of these next-generation biorefineries will be very different than the starch ethanol plant is today,” he said.

Donohue sees a “huge economic opportunity” to build biorefineries, which he says would cost around $30 billion each. But he says that hefty cost could be balanced out by new jobs being created and by the products of those refineries being used locally.

“We want to maximize production of valuable biomass on so-called marginal or non-agricultural land, and convert as much of the biomass as possible,” he said. “We also want to predict how this is going to work… hopefully we’ve thought about things that are going to be deal-breakers.”

The research lab has been around for 12 years, and Donohue says nearly 200 U.S. and global patent applications have come out of the lab in the past two years alone. Through the Wisconsin Alumni Research Foundation, he says the Great Lakes Bioenergy research lab has more than 100 licensing options and has helped launch five startup companies.

On top of that, Donohue says the lab has trained hundreds of students in the bioenergy space.

Michigan State University is a major partner of the GLBRC, which is one of three bioenergy research centers created in 2007 by the DOE.

See a list of technologies available for licensing from the research center:


–By Alex Moe