State’s Bio-Refinery Opening

The state’s biofuels refinery opens Friday in Vonore, southwest of Knoxville. The facility is intended to demonstrate and study the use switchgrass as a fuel, by turning it into ethanol on an industrial scale.

The biorefinery will actually start out using corn cobs as a raw supply instead of switchgrass. Professor Kelly Tiller is CEO of Genera – the project’s for-profit company at the University of Tennessee. She says scientists have been studying how to make fuel from corn cobs for a decade. That’s why it’s simpler to start the facility using corn, and then cross over to switchgrass after working out the kinks of the process.

“You want to try to minimize the number of variables in this production process until you have everything working as you would expect at the scale that you need it to work, and then you start to make changes such as the feedstock.”

Tiller says hopefully each ton of raw material can produce up to a hundred gallons of fuel, with the refinery producing a quarter-million gallons a year.

The plant cost more than $50 million to build, with about two-thirds of that money coming from the state. Private partners are paying the cost of operating the plant, which Tiller says is in the tens of millions of dollars.

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The facility represents a middle step, in between laboratory research and full-scale industrial production.

Ultimately, UT scientists say for the amount of energy that goes into producing switchgrass fuel, you can get ten times as much energy back out. Tiller says that’s several times the rate for more conventional corn-based ethanol.

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