UT-led switchgrass development team gets $15M grant

By Megan Boehnke

Thursday, September 29, 2011

A team of scientists led by the University of Tennessee will receive $15 million, part of a historic grant from the Department of Agriculture, to study reliable and cost-effective ways to turn switchgrass and fast-growing trees into biofuels.

Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack announced Wednesday a five-year, $136 million grant awarded to five teams working on projects related to biofuels for transportation aimed at creating rural jobs, developing renewable energy on a regional level and decreasing the nation's dependence on foreign oil.

"For the USDA, this is absolutely huge. It's a substantial effort," said Tim Rials, director of UT's Center for Renewable Carbon and lead investigator on the project.

"We are a close community, we're familiar and acquainted with the principal investigators of the other programs and already we're beginning to see interaction between the groups that will bring additional benefits to the overall investment. We're excited about that, the potential and the synergy."

Rials will lead a group of researchers from five institutions Auburn University, North Carolina State University, the University of Georgia, ArborGen Inc. in South Carolina., and Ceres Inc. in California that together make up the Southeast Partnership for Integrated Biomass Supply Systems.

The goal is to take crops like switchgrass, which research has already shown to be effective in converting to fuel, and make it feasible for companies to invest in refineries by ensuring the crops are reliable and the costs are affordable.

This partnership will enhance the work UT has already done on switchgrass since it rolled out its Tennessee Biofuels Initiative in late 2006.

"The (partnership) effort significantly broadens work under way because our focus is almost exclusively switchgrass," Rials said.

Lead institutions on the other four projects awarded money from the USDA grant include University of Washington, Washington State University, Iowa State University and Louisiana State University.