From Prairie to Fuel Tank

This fall, the University of Tennessee (UT) board of trustees announced a business partnership with Massachusetts-based Mascoma Corp. to build and operate a 5-million-gallon per year cellulosic ethanol biorefinery.

The facility will be located in the Niles Ferry Industrial Park in Vonore, Tenn., 35 miles south of Knoxville. At full capacity, it will require 170 tons per day of biomass material.

Cellulosic ethanol is different from traditional corn ethanol because it is made from nonfood plant material, such as switchgrass and wood chips. Switchgrass is a domestically grown grass, native to the central prairies. Unlike corn, which also is grown for food and livestock feed, the demand and the price for switchgrass is not as high. Consequently, it is being touted as a low-cost, domestic source of renewable fuel, mentioned by President Bush in his 2006 State of the Union address.

The business partnership and plans for the facility with Mascoma are a result of the UT Biofuels Initiative, a research and business model designed to reduce dependence on foreign oil and provide significant economic and environmental benefits for the state’s farmers and communities.

Experts predict Tennessee could produce more than 1 billion gallons of cellulosic ethanol a year, nearly one-third of the state’s petroleum usage. Earlier this year, Tennessee Gov. Phil Bredesen announced his proposed 2007–08 state budget would include $61 million for a comprehensive alternative fuels strategy to help the state become a national leader in the production of biomass ethanol and related research. EC


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