Several University of Tennessee researchers said opening the Vonore biorefinery creates a bioenergy industry for Tennessee.
UT created the Biofuels Initiative program (UTBI) as a state sponsored plan to decrease America’s dependency on foreign oil, while increasing the rural economic development and domestic energy within the state, according to their site www.utbioenergy.org/TNBiofuelsInitiative/. UT partnered with DuPont Danisco Cellulosic Ethanol LLC (DDCE) in 2008 to construct the facility, and will jump-start the bioenergy industry with the completion of their pilot-scale biorefinery facility in Vonore on Dec. 14.
The plant holds a process development unit (PDU) and comes complete with laboratories designed to help researchers improve the efficiency of switchgrass to cellulosic ethanol production. UT researcher and professor, Dr. Sam Jackson said, the plants primary product will be “Grassoline” which is ethanol fuel derived from plant material such as switchgrass, wood chips and other forest and agricultural biomass. Jackson said the plants initial operations will be with corn cobs because of DDCE’s familiarity the crop. Then convert to switchgrass production three months from now producing 250,000 gallons of ethanol annually. According to DDCE, if all goes well a commercial-scale production plant could be possible by 2013.
Shane Burris, director of Monroe County Economic Development, worked with UT and the leaders of Genera Energy to help bring the project to Vonore. There are several reasons that brought the facility to Monroe County, according to Burris and Jackson. The new biorefinery is located in the Niles Ferry Industrial Park off U.S. highway 411 on Fort Loudon Lake.. That places the plant just 23 miles from McGhee Tyson Airport in Knoxville, and only 16 miles from Interstate 75. It also places researchers within a 30 – 45 minute drive to the UT campus and the Oak Ridge National Laboratory, which has also been working on the development of a cellulosic ethanol process.
Burris stressed that unemployment has been on the rise in the county since 2007, and it is of some concern because of the declining boating industry, along with dairy and tobacco farming struggles. The Vonore plant brings about 40 jobs, and Burris hopes to bring more jobs to the county within three to six months and believes the county could become a center for bioenergy research. “We’re excited about it being here and look forward to working with them on any future projects, as this county could possibly become a nationally prominent location for green technology and energy,” Burris proclaimed.
Although UT is excited about the project, Jackson said there is obviously some concern in the community surrounding air quality of the plant. “So that’s something we discussed with citizens in the preliminary meetings. But people will ultimately experience very little odor to no emissions at all,” Jackson said. He noted the Vonore plant would not emit similar odors compared to the Staley’s plant in Loudon County, even though they will produce similar products, Staley’s use a much different process.
Although the plant and the biofuels project has drawn criticism over cost viability, Burris believes the venture is worth the time. “The reality is that this type of work needs to be done because unfortunately we aren’t drilling our own oil or building refineries in this country, which should be done,” Burris said.
Ken Goddard, UT Extension Biofuels Specialist, believes public opinion is positive because switchgrass gives farmers the ability to produce a crop in formerly unproductive soil. Goddard provides farmers with the expertise of growing switchgrass as he helped to start this farm to fuel project in 2005. Goddard said they currently have 2,600 acres of seed planted in 199 fields, on 40 farms, within a 50-mile radius of the refinery.
For farmers to be accepted into the 3-year production contract or 2-year storage contract of switchgrass, they have to meet certain requirements, decided by Goddard and a UT committee. He said farmers need some traditional farming equipment such as tractors, front-end loaders, sprayers and drills.“So they need to have more than just a pie in the sky idea to save the world as far as energy is concerned,” Goddard stated.
However, UT rejects fields which consist of bermuda grasses because there is no current procces to control it. While the fields with dallas, johnson, crab and other native grasses are contolled by bushhogging or certain chemicals. UT is now researching new methods of weed control, as it is viable in effecting the ability to manage and produce quality switchgrass.
Goddard thinks one unique thing about this project is that it virtually includes every department within the institute of agriculture. Jackson said the University of Tennessee has lots of money invested in bioenergy. And he hopes to see a significant impact possibly producing one third of the states ethanol use within the next five years.
According to Goddard and Jackson, Tennessee is the first state to install a complete package for switchgrass production, with an initial package of $70.5 million provided by the governor and state legislature in 2007 for bioenergy research. In addition, the bioenergy science center received $135 million completely for research alone. Overall Jackson said around $200 million is invested in bioenergy research in Tennessee, with around $7.5 million going directly to UT’s benefit.
With that large of an investment, this project could have major implications not only locally but also nationally, according to theses UT researchers. “The world is watching, and I think this project of switchgrass to ethanol production has so much potential, and it could do more for agriculture than anything since the mechanical revolution, as far as I’m concerned,” Goddard said.