This spring, state legislators awarded $20 million to the University of Florida’s Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences to establish a research plant to commercialize researcher Lonnie Ingram’s patented technology for producing ethanol from the woody parts of plants.
Now, UF officials are extending an offer to businesses and professional organizations to help make that plant a reality. The plant will further establish UF’s reputation as one of the nation’s leading institutions for alternative fuels research, said Ingram, a distinguished professor of microbiology and cell science.
“I think it’s wonderful that our state has made this level of investment in new technology for renewable fuel production,” Ingram said.
The new research and development facility, to be built at an as-yet undetermined location in Florida, will be used to improve production, making it faster and more efficient, he said.
“This is a giant step forward in our efforts to commercialize cellulosic ethanol technology,” said Jimmy Cheek, UF senior vice-president for agriculture and natural resources.
Unlike conventional ethanol production, which uses feedstocks that contain glucose, such as corn, cellulosic ethanol technology produces fuel from inedible material in plant cell walls.
Ingram created the world’s first genetically engineered E. coli bacteria capable of converting the sugars present in plant fibers into ethanol. His work at UF was granted U.S. landmark patent No. 5,000,000 in 1991, and he and colleagues have been working to improve and refine the process ever since.
The technology is licensed to a Massachusetts-based company called Celunol, which built a pilot plant in Jennings, La., in 1999. The facility, which has the capacity to produce 50,000 gallons of ethanol a year, is testing potential ethanol feedstocks, ranging from sugar cane to trees.
Meanwhile, across the street from the Jennings plant, Celunol is revamping a vacant oil refinery into a demonstration facility capable of producing 1.4 million gallons of ethanol a year.
The new Florida plant will help that effort by allowing experimentation and rapid implementation of improvements in the process. It also will serve as a test facility for full scale commercialization and as a training ground for engineers and scientists.
“We’ve demonstrated in a lab and on a small scale that the technology works, but there are several opportunities for improvements to get this technology fully commercialized,” Cheek said.
To that end, IFAS officials are seeking a collaborator that has built-in infrastructure to help house the plant, including roads, steam and electric power, and a steady stream of nearby feedstock — anything from sugar cane remnants to tree limbs — to make the ethanol.
It will be at least 1.5 to 2 years before the plant is producing ethanol, Ingram said. Initially, the plant is expected to produce 1 million to 2 million gallons each year, but eventually that amount will be 7 million to 10 million gallons a year.
The plant could be built anywhere in the state, although it would be best located near gasoline and ethanol blending facilities on either coast, he said.
Ingram said the UF cellulosic ethanol plant is one of a number of alternative fuel projects going on around the country, as the oil importation problems and higher gasoline prices have made the search for alternative fuels a priority.
Federal officials have announced that the Department of Energy and the Department of Agriculture had selected 11 projects to receive a total of $8.3 million for biofuels research to accelerate the development of alternative fuels.
Of that amount, UF is receiving $750,000 for a 36-month project that looks at the potential for sweet sorghum as a potential feedstock for ethanol production.
UF’s Wilfred Vermerris and co-researcher Gebisa Ejeta of Purdue University will study ways to boost the fermentable sugar in the sorghum plant to improve its use in ethanol production.