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Printed Wednesday June 27th, 2007.
MSU will receive $50 million to study biofuels
By COLLEEN MAXWELL
The State News
The research ball is still rolling - MSU officials announced Tuesday the university received the largest research grant in its history, totaling $125 million.
MSU will collaborate with the University of Wisconsin at Madison to establish the Great Lakes Bioenergy Research Center, which will be one of three U.S. Department of Energy Bioenergy Research Centers in the nation.
The center, funded with the $125 million during the next five years, will be based in Madison, Wis. MSU will use $50 million for basic science research, working to create energy out of renewable resources.
MSU, state and local officials gathered at Hancock Turf Center, 4444 Farm Lane, for the announcement. The speakers stood in front of various plants, with giant smokestacks peaking behind in the distance.
Gov. Jennifer Granholm called the plants and smokestacks symbols of the state's new and old economies.
"These grasses that are right here are grasses that will be used for the research that will put fuel into your tank," she said.
The center will immediately produce about 100 jobs for the state's new economy, MSU President Lou Anna K. Simon said.
"You have to be steadfast that science will produce results, though it is not an immediate solution," she said.
Granholm said diversifying Michigan's economy by using alternative energy may create hundreds of thousands of jobs statewide.
"As a state, this particular announcement helps us to build the next Michigan," she said.
A perfect place
The Great Lakes region is an ideal area for bioenergy studies, said Ken Keegstra, who will serve as the research center's executive director.
Keegstra, as well as Tim Donohue, professor of bacteriology at the University of Wisconsin, worked to bring the center to the area.
"We're literally surrounded by the types of biomass that we will be using to produce these new biofuels," said Keegstra, an MSU distinguished professor of plant biology and of biochemistry and molecular biology.
"We're also close to the industrial and biotechnology partners we need to help utilize these discoveries."
The center should focus on making sure new technology gets put into practice, said Steven Pueppke, director of MSU's Office of Biobased Technologies.
"Sure we're going to make discoveries, sure there's going to be new technologies, but we're going to make sure it has an impact in the real world," he said.
Pueppke also will be one of the key MSU scientists in the research done at the center - as well as Bruce Dale, a professor of chemical engineering and materials science; John Ohlrogge, university distinguished professor of plant biology; and G. Philip Robertson, professor of crop and soil sciences.
They will team with scientists from Wisconsin, a Madison-based biotechnology company, the Pacific Northwest and Oak Ridge National Laboratories and the University of Florida.
Behind the scenes
As the center's executive director, Keegstra will split his time between East Lansing and Madison.
The research done at the center will have four main focuses:
? Producing improved crop plants that have increased energy density.
"We now need new types of plants that have new traits that can be used for increased energy production," he said.
? Improving methods for converting existing plant material into biofuels.
? Developing new methods for releasing the sugars present in plant material so they can be fermented into ethanol.
"Ethanol will be just the first generation of biofuels," Keegstra said. "We also imagine more advanced types of biofuels as time moves on."
? Improving chemical methods for turning released sugars from plants in ethanol.
The scientists will work to create alternative forms of fuel, but don't expect your gas prices to drop just yet.
"We are not going to lower the price of gasoline this year - that's not going to be on our list of goals," Keegstra said.
"Rather, our goal is to begin a long process that will hopefully lead to energy independence for the United States some ten years down the road."
As well as having four main research goals, the center will focus on evaluating the sustainability of all its processes, Keegstra said.
"There's no point in doing all this if we're going to run out of things," he said.
Simon said the center will have long-term goals.
"Universities are for the future, to worry about not only today's problems but also tomorrow's," she said.
I was thinking that it would be really neat if there was a University team that would have as a goal to get the most out of an existing car like a Civic Hatchback. There are colleges that have access to a windtunnel and a team of students could do amazing things I think. And practically; for instance if they could make a fiberglass tailpart for a hatchback we might all be able to use the mold, plus I am sure they would try all kinds of engine mods that would actually be tested under laboratory-like conditions.
Wonder if we could talk a University into doing that? There have been articles about the CX/VX for instance with a college origin, so the interest is there. And it might do more for the environment on short notice if they would come up with some general findings that would pretty much help all car-owners. Even if it would only make a few mpg difference.
If there would be enough people to be interested in this we could find and donate a VX to a interested college; say 100 members would donate $20 that might do the trick. I myself would find this pretty exciting. It's just an idea I have been toying with