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S.C. Group to Test Local Crops As Biofuels

July 8, 2008

By Mike Gellatly, Aiken Standard, S.C.

Jul. 8–As fossil fuels come closer to exhaustion, reducing the world’s dependence on them requires the development of new energy sources.

With recent demands on corn crops causing food shortages, the greatest interests are clean, domestically produced and economically advantageous sources not made from food crops.

A collaborative group of South Carolina research institutions and industries is paving the way to meet those requirements by advancing the development and commercial production of the next generation of biofuels.

The South Carolina Bioenergy Research Collaborative (SCBRC) has reached a new milestone toward that goal, it announced Monday.

The group has completed key plans for a pilot plant to test and demonstrate methods of converting regional crops into clean, locally produced biofuels.

In 2007, a cooperative involving the Savannah River National Laboratory, Clemson University and other partners formed the SCBRC. The goal was to demonstrate the economic feasibility of using cellulosic biomass from regional plants, such as switchgrass, short-rotation trees and sorghum, to make ethanol.

“We’re focusing our efforts on biofuels that use locally available feedstocks that do not compete with food supplies,” said SRNL Bioenergy Manager Tom French. “The goal is to use South Carolina’s agricultural resources to help the state and nation reduce dependence on fossil fuels and enhance South Carolina’s alternative-fuel industry.”

Part of the research collaborative’s mission is to establish a biofuels research pilot plant at the Clemson University Restoration Institute in North Charleston.

French thinks that within a few years, this phase of the project will be complete and could lead to the licensing of commercial organizations. Including time to build a plant, he said, this all could be achieved in 5 and a half years.

SRNL and Clemson are both in the process of installing new research facilities that will be used to outline specific parameters of the project and to determine the hydrolysis and fermentation operations, two of the major steps in producing cellulosic biofuels.

This pilot plan is designed to scale up new technologies from small laboratory settings.

“The yield isn’t as important as how to operate the plant,” French said. “The final yield will be at 1 percent of a full-scale facility.”

A full-scale operation, he said, would produce 40 to 50 million gallons of ethanol a year.

In addition to SCBRC’s mission, the pilot hopes to enable energy producers interested in the Southeast energy crop to scale up new and innovative processes and ultimately build regional ethanol facilities.

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