Biofuels pilot plant passes

Published: June 3 2007


This op-ed appeared June 3 in The Gainesville Sun.

By: Win Phillips
Win Phillips is vice president for Research at the University of Florida.

Absent from last week’s headlines about Gov. Charlie Crist’s veto of a 5 percent tuition hike for universities was an important piece of good news: The governor let stand $20 million for a new biofuel pilot plant to be built by the University of Florida.

The fact that Gov. Crist chose to exclude the plant from his record $459 million in line-item vetoes says a lot about the plant’s promise for Florida and the nation. And the plant itself – a near-industrial-scale realization of a concept pioneered by a UF scientist – provides a strong example of the breadth and depth of UF’s research in energy, surely one of the most important issues of our time.

The pilot plant is designed to fine tune the process of making ethanol not from corn, but rather from what today are often regarded as waste biological materials, including sugar cane waste, orange pulp and seeds and yard trimmings. It will bring one step closer to fruition technology developed by UF’s Lonnie Ingram, a distinguished professor of microbiology who earlier this year shared a table with President Bush at a Washington D.C. meeting on alternative energy.

Ingram’s basic innovation was to genetically engineer two common bacteria to create a new organism that converts cellulose into energy.

Unlike corn, that cellulose is available in numerous agricultural byproducts as well as from natural sources. In theory, what’s now often thrown away could instead power Floridians’ cars and buses.

Of course, it’s not that easy. Since he received the landmark 5 millionth patent designation for the technology in 1991, Ingram has been chipping away at refining the process to make it inexpensive and quick enough to be commercially viable. That’s where the new plant, to be located in the sugar-growing region near Lake Okeechobee, comes in. Its goal is test new processes and techniques to accelerate commercialization.

For Florida, the potential is huge. Because of its year-round growing season, the Sunshine State is the nation’s leading producer of the biomass Ingram’s process would tap. Ingram estimates that the state’s lawns, orange groves, sugar cane farmers and forests produce as much as 124 million tons of it per year.

That’s enough, in theory, to make 10 billion gallons of ethanol – more than double the 4.8 billion gallons now made mostly from corn nationwide. And that ethanol would be made without the significant expenditures on fertilizer, herbicides and diesel fuel devoted to growing corn.

Florida’s electricity consumption is expected to grow 30 percent in the next 10 years alone. So Gov. Crist’s approval of the plant could make a huge difference down the road for Floridians. But that’s only half the story.

The other half is this: This revolutionary ethanol process, while certainly the most prominent, is just one of several developments being pioneered by UF energy researchers that could help address the energy crunch. These include research on:

Fuel cells: UF researchers have made significant progress toward low temperature solid oxide fuel cells. These cells can convert available fuels into hydrogen, which would make it easier to transition to hydrogen-based transportation system.

Solar cells: UF engineers and chemists are developing a new generation of cheaper, lighter and more versatile solar cells based on a new breed of exceptionally thin and cheap organic solar cells.

Nuclear energy: UF engineers are working on several new technologies related to the next generation of nuclear plants. Unlike coal plants, nuclear plants do not release greenhouse gases, making nuclear technology an increasingly attractive alternative when it comes to producing large amounts of power.

The $20 million for the biofuel plant is only the latest indicator of Florida’s support for these and other energy related projects at UF. Last year, for example, Florida lawmakers approved $4.5 million for the Florida Institute for Sustainable Energy Energy Technology Incubator. The incubator is intended to help UF scientists and engineers “scale up” energy-related technologies, such as fuel cells and solar cells, to prove their capabilities in the marketplace.

That’s important, because technology commercialization is something we have proven we know how to do. Business Week readers learned as much earlier this month, when that magazine’s May 21 issue featured a story about UF’s success in this area.

The story, headlined “MIT, Cal Tech – And The Gators? How the University of Florida moved to the major league of technology startups,” noted that Florida’s license income jumped from $11 million 10 years ago to $40.3 million today. And it pointed out that the Sid Martin Biotechnology Incubator is fully occupied with a dozen clients.

Those clients include two energy companies currently. That number is likely to grow as our energy research expands. Through such startups and other avenues of commercialization, we think we can contribute a lot to solving Florida’s energy challenges.


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