Many building dedications feature a ribbon-cutting; this one included a front-end loader ceremoniously dumping a scoopful of pulverized sugarcane stalks.

It was an appropriate way to mark the official launch of the Stan Mayfield Biorefinery Pilot Plant in Perry, a cooperative venture between the University of Florida’s Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences and Buckeye Technologies Inc.

As 200 guests looked on, State Rep. Debbie Mayfield, (R-Vero Beach), stepped up to the big machine and pulled a lever, delivering the first official shipment of feedstock to the biorefinery, which will develop methods for producing fuel ethanol and other compounds from inedible plant material.

The biorefinery is named for Mayfield’s late husband, a member of the state House of Representatives from 2000 until his death in 2008. A UF graduate, Mayfield was a strong advocate of renewable fuels, environmental protection and economic growth.

Mayfield was instrumental in securing a $20 million appropriation from the Florida Legislature to fund the biorefinery, noted UF Senior Vice-President for Agriculture and Natural Resources Jack Payne as he addressed the audience inside the 18,500-square-foot facility.

“(Stan) listened to and respected the research but also knew the way to get this idea from the lab to daily reality had to be a partnership — a partnership that matched the knowledge created at the University of Florida with state support and private industry leadership,” Payne said.

Strong partnership commitment

The commitment to that partnership was evident in the roster of speakers, which included state Commissioner of Agriculture Adam Putnam, UF President Bernie Machen and Buckeye Technologies Inc. Chairman and CEO John Crowe.

Attendees included numerous agricultural leaders and high-ranking officials from state government, UF, Buckeye and other groups involved in the project.

Among them was Lonnie Ingram, a UF distinguished professor of microbiology and cell science, who developed a genetically modified bacterium that will be key to the biorefinery’s operations. The bacterium breaks down cellulose, a major component of plant cell walls, yielding simpler compounds used to produce fuel ethanol and bioplastics.

Calling Ingram a legend in the field of biofuels production, Putnam quipped that being a member of the audience was “like being at the dedication of a light bulb plant with Thomas Edison.”

When fully operational, the biorefinery will produce up to 400 gallons of fuel ethanol and 5,000 pounds of organic acids for bioplastics each day. Some of the researchers’ goals include testing a wide variety of feedstocks, such as crop residues and yard waste, and finding ways to save money on production costs.

At the ceremony’s conclusion, Ingram led a tour of the facility’s interior, which is dotted with huge tanks and crisscrossed by innumerable pipes and valves. The biorefinery is located at Buckeye’s plant in Perry, providing the infrastructure needed to deliver feedstock by train and truck.

In his remarks, Machen said the biorefinery exemplifies the way partnerships between academia, industry and government can produce results for all Florida residents.

“Working together at this demonstration plant, we can help shape a new reality of clean, renewable and domestically produced energy,” Machen said. “I can think of no better example of the mission of a research university at work.”