The development of a sustainable biofuels industry in Tennessee has taken another leap forward. The U.S. Department of Energy has announced that Mascoma Corporation, with the University of Tennessee, is among the recipients of a $26 million grant for the development of biomass conversion technology.

The grant is for demonstrating the production of cellulosic ethanol at approximately one-tenth commercial scale operations. The facility is to be constructed at the Niles Ferry Industrial Park in Monroe County as part of the Tennessee Biofuels Initiative.

The Tennessee Biofuels Initiative is a business model proposed by UT and supported by Governor Phil Bredesen and the state legislature. State appropriations in 2007 included $40.7 million for construction of the demonstration biorefinery and funds for further research and development of bioenergy crops and conversion techniques. The ultimate goal is a thriving, sustainable biobased economy in the state with multiple biorefineries, each supplied by locally produced biomass.

David Millhorn, executive vice-president for the University of Tennessee, said, “This newest award is a dramatic example of how the vision and investment made by Governor Bredesen and our state leaders has helped to leverage major federal funding that will have dramatic impact on rural development in Tennessee.”

The new funding brings the total investment in the region to some $230 million for the development of bioenergy sciences. This includes $135 million that Oak Ridge National Laboratory received from DOE in 2007 for its new Bioenergy Science Center.

Joseph DiPietro, UT vice-president for agriculture, echoed Millhorn's thoughts. “We appreciate the additional investment by DOE. These funds, in tandem with funds already secured from the state, will lead to even greater discoveries and secure Tennessee at the forefront in development of the biofuels industry.”

The new DOE grant will support Tennessee’s efforts to demonstrate how farm-based production of energy crops can supply a biorefinery and will support research to enhance the commercial feasibility of converting biomass crops into fuels and other products. The University of Tennessee, University of Tennessee Research Foundation and Genera Energy are partners with Mascoma in the award.

Genera Energy is a limited liability company recently formed by the University of Tennessee Research Foundation for the purpose of managing the research, development and demonstration operations of the cellulosic ethanol biorefinery in Vonore. Genera Energy will help transform the technological developments made by researchers into products for the marketplace.

Cellulosic biofuels are referred to as the next or second generation of biofuels because they are not necessarily made with food-based commodities like corn. Researchers with the UT Institute of Agriculture are cooperating with scientists at Oak Ridge National Laboratory, Mascoma and other partners to solve technical issues related to the production of cellulosic ethanol.

Earlier this year the University announced a farmer incentive program for production of switchgrass as a feedstock for the biorefinery. UT has contracted with 16 farmers within 50 miles of the biorefinery site to produce 720 acres of switchgrass this year. The number of participants is expected to increase to accommodate the needs of the biorefinery, and approximately 6,000 acres of switchgrass should be in production by 2010.

Genera Energy plans to have the demonstration biorefinery operational in early 2010, coinciding with the second annual harvest of switchgrass.

Kelly Tiller, director of operations for the UT Office of Bioenergy Programs, is charged with overseeing the university’s efforts regarding the construction and operation of the biorefinery. “Forming Genera Energy allows us more flexibility in seeking partners for this first-of-its kind research and development effort,” she said. “Ultimately the consumers of Tennessee who choose to purchase cellulosic ethanol will be the beneficiaries through more competitive prices for fuel.”

“It’s a win-win situation for everyone in the state,” Tiller explains.

“Instead of revenues associated with retail gasoline purchases flowing out of the state and overseas, revenue from locally produced fuels will circulate within our own communities many times over providing funding for jobs and to improve local infrastructure like schools.”

Unlike first generation ethanol from corn and sugar cane, Genera Energy will focus on proving the commercial viability of the production of ethanol from sustainable non-food plant biomass such as switchgrass and other woody biomass commodities.