UT’s Bio-Refinery Hopes To Use Grass To Make More Than Gas

Last week officials told lawmakers the state's $70M investment in switchgrass technology has attracted far more in private and federal funds, and could position the state for further gains if the use switchgrass in lieu of oil can ramp up industrially. (Credit Gwendolyn Stansbury / flickr)

Last week officials told lawmakers the state’s $70M investment in switchgrass technology has attracted far more in private and federal funds, and could position the state for further gains if the use switchgrass in lieu of oil can ramp up industrially. (Credit Gwendolyn Stansbury / flickr)

State officials are hoping the University of Tennessee’s bio-refinery will draw interest from fuel companies, as the facility is now online turning switchgrass into ethanol.  But the technology opens the door to a slew of other potential products as well.

The state gave UT some $70 million before the recession to develop a process for making ethanol to fuel cars with tall switchgrass, instead of corn.  It’s taken several years, but UT’s chemical-industry partner says now the facility outside Knoxville is making about a thousand gallons a week from switchgrass.  UT uses it to power a fleet of flex-fuel vehicles.

That said, Professor Kelly Tiller points out “a bio-refinery is not just about producing ethanol,” as the work also opens paths to using switchgrass instead of oil in all manner of products, from fabric, to makeup, to plastic:

“For a lot of things that are improvements over their oil counterparts, and get us there using renewable resources–domestically produced resources that build up our own domestic economy, particularly our rural economy.”

Tiller says switchgrass can thrive on tougher land where corn wouldn’t do as well, while perhaps yielding more per acre.  She said she couldn’t go into specifics about particular products or what companies might be interested, but hinted the possibilities look promising.


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