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Initiative Will Put Illinois at Forefront of Farm Bioenergy Production

A $500 million research program announced today by the energy company BP will bring farm bioenergy production to Illinois on a grand scale, say researchers at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. Illinois will join the University of California at Berkeley and the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory in forming the new Energy Biosciences Institute, with UC Berkeley taking the lead.

As part of the EBI, some 340 acres of farmland at the Urbana campus will be devoted to the study and production of feedstock for biofuel production. Researchers will explore the potential benefits of using corn crop residues, switchgrass, Miscanthus (Miscanthus x giganticus: a hybrid grass that can grow 13 feet tall), and other herbaceous perennials as fuel sources. The initiative will explore how adequate supplies of high quality plant biomass can be sustainably produced and utilized in facilities that convert the biomass to fuels.

"The proposal from UC Berkeley and its partners was selected in large part because these institutions have excellent track records of delivering 'Big Science' - large and complex developments predicated on both scientific breakthroughs and engineering applications that can be deployed in the real world," said BP Group Chief Executive John Browne. "This program will further both basic and applied biological research relevant to energy. In short, it will create the discipline of Energy Biosciences. The Institute will be unique in both its scale and its partnership between BP, academia and others in the private sector."

Previous support, from the Illinois Council for Food and Agricultural Research, enabled U. of I. scientists to pioneer research in the use of Miscanthus as a bioenergy crop.

The researchers have found that this hardy perennial grass is more than twice as productive as switchgrass, another biofuel source. This makes Miscanthus a front-runner in the effort to find an economical and environmentally friendly fuel source.

Illinois will also work with its partners in the EBI to explore the economic and environmental impact of the process - from farmland to fuel consumption. Understanding and reducing the environmental impacts of biofuel production will be a key focus.

"This will place us at the forefront of farm bioenergy production," said Stephen P. Long, the Robert Emerson Professor of crop sciences in the College of Agricultural, Consumer and Environmental Sciences and a professor of plant biology in the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences.

Long, who also has appointments at the National Center for Supercomputing Applications and the Institute for Genomic Biology, will lead the EBI initiative for Illinois. Laboratories and offices for the Illinois operation will be in the new IGB facility on Gregory Drive in Urbana.

Feedstock development is one of five research areas at the EBI. The others are biomass depolymerization (breaking down plant material for use in biofuels), fossil fuel bioprocessing (converting heavy hydrocarbons to cleaner fuels) and carbon sequestration (removing or preventing increases in atmospheric carbon), socio-economic systems (social and economic issues related to these new technologies) and biofuels production. Discovery and development research centers at each site will support the scientific divisions.

In addition to feedstock development and socio-economic research, Illinois will work with the other research institutions on biofuels production. UC Berkeley will lead this part of the project, with Illinois joining the search for the most efficient use of microbes to harvest the energy in plants for biofuels.

U. of I. Chancellor Richard Herman thanked BP for engaging the two universities in what he called a noble enterprise.

"This exciting venture allows two of the country's greatest public universities to work together to develop renewable energy - an initiative that will play a critical role in the success and security of our nation," Herman said. "Addressing the problems facing society is the business of our institution. The scientists leading this important work are continuing Illinois' rich heritage of paradigm-changing discovery and innovation."

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