Tennessee biomass project gets $4.9 million grant

Genera Energy LLC of Knoxville, Tenn., in collaboration with the University of Tennessee Biofuels Initiative, is among the five recipients of the DOE’s latest round of biomass grants.

In an Aug. 31 announcement, U.S. Department of Energy Secretary Steven Chu said Genera Energy will receive up to $4.9 million to supply low-moisture switchgrass with an efficient bulk-format system that maximizes automated conveyance and handling. Researchers with the UT Institute of Agriculture will manage the project, which aims to achieve an overall process where switchgrass is dry chopped into bulk format on the farm, hauled to a nearby satellite location, stored in a protective facility, bulk compacted into trailers, and efficiently hauled for unloading at the handling unit of the biorefinery.

Genera Energy is the company formed in 2008 by the University of Tennessee Research Foundation as a vehicle to carry out the University’s clean, renewable energy projects and strategic partnerships, particularly related to the cellulosic ethanol biorefinery activities and capital projects of the UT Biofuels Initiative. Genera Energy is collaborating with DuPont Danisco Cellulosic Ethanol to construct a demonstration scale cellulosic ethanol biorefinery in Vonore, Tenn. that is scheduled to begin operations by the end of this year.

Alvin Womac, UT professor of biosystems engineering, will be the principal investigator for the project. "One of the challenges in launching the new biofuel industry in Tennessee and elsewhere is to reduce bulky plant matter to a consistent commodity with predictable specifications,” he said. “The aim of this project is to develop high-tonnage equipment systems to efficiently supply energy crop materials to the new Vonore, Tennessee, biofuels facility and other commercial-scale units.” Such equipment systems, Womac says, will aid year-round supply logistics and reduce transport and handling costs. The engineer also maintains the proposed scale of the project will allow the evaluation of up to 2,500 tons per year of switchgrass by leveraging partnerships ranging from equipment manufacturers to DOE national labs.

The DOE announcement is in response to a funding opportunity announced in March 2009. DOE is making up to $21 million available to five projects that will develop supply systems to handle and deliver high tonnage biomass feedstocks for cellulosic biofuels production. The awards are part of the department’s ongoing efforts to reduce U.S. dependence on foreign oil, spur the creation of the domestic bio-industry and provide new jobs in many rural areas of the country.

“Biofuels will play an important role in America’s clean energy portfolio,” Secretary Chu said in a press release. “These projects will allow us to decrease our dependence on foreign oil, support the growth of the biofuels industry and create jobs here at home.”

UT administrators are very pleased that the university continues to be recognized among the national leaders in the effort to develop affordable homegrown transportation fuels. “This award is further recognition that the state’s investment in our biofuels research was well founded. Every day we grow closer to developing the technology and infrastructure that will serve as the backbone of a biofuels industry,” said Joseph DiPietro, vice-president of the UT Institute of Agriculture.

Kelly Tiller, president and CEO of Genera Energy, added, “This award is a great example of the benefit to the University and the state of having a private partner like Genera Energy for our commercial efforts in clean energy. To be competitive for this funding opportunity, it was important to demonstrate that we could take valuable research coming out of our University labs and coordinate a large-scale demonstration with private partners such as Marathon Equipment and John Deere and demonstrate a supply chain system that can rapidly be scaled up and deployed commercially. That’s clearly a benefit not only to the University and the private partners, but also to the state and broader farm community.”

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