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USDA announces funding for five major biofuel projects

USDA to fund five major agricultural research projects aimed at developing regional, renewable energy markets. Projects include those at Louisiana State University and the University of Tennessee.

On Wednesday, the USDA announced five major agricultural research projects today aimed at developing regional, renewable energy markets, generating rural jobs, and decreasing America's dependence on foreign oil. Altogether, the five-year program will deliver more than $136 million in research and development grants to public and private sector partners in 22 states. University partners from the states of Washington, Louisiana, Tennessee, and Iowa will lead the projects, which focus in part on developing aviation biofuels from tall grasses, crop residues and forest resources.

"We have an incredible opportunity to create thousands of new jobs and drive economic development in rural communities across America by continuing to build the framework for a competitively-priced, American-made biofuels industry," said Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack. "Over the past two years, USDA has worked to help our nation develop a national biofuels economy that continues to help us out-innovate and out-compete the rest of the world while moving our nation toward a clean energy economy."

The grants came through USDA's National Institute of Food and Agriculture (NIFA). The projects will address needs across regional supply chains and will complement existing bioenergy efforts across government, academia, and the private sector. Summaries of the five projects follow:

  • A research team from the University of Washington received $40 million to focus on using sustainably grown woody energy crops to produce biogasoline and renewable aviation fuel. A consortium of eight organizations will work throughout the entire woody biomass supply chain to promote the financing, construction and operation of multiple biorefineries, while reaching out to landowners and land managers, as well as regional K-12 and college students and faculty, to foster workforce development opportunities across the supply chain.
  • A research team led by Washington State University received $40 million to convert closed timber mills into bioenergy development centers, improving the economic potential of rural communities affected by the downturn in timber production. The team will focus on feedstock development, sustainable forest production and establishing new methods to identify the most promising plant lines for biofuel conversion. The project aims to develop a regional source of renewable aviation fuel for Seattle-Tacoma International Airport.
  • A research team led by Iowa State University received $25 million to develop a regional biomass production system for advanced transportation fuels derived from native perennial grasses, such as switchgrass, big bluestem and Indian grass. The $25 million project will study the potential benefits of planting grasses with legumes to provide nutrients to land unsuitable for row crop production – adding value to marginal lands while reducing nitrogen runoff into waterways and increasing carbon sequestration. The team will also evaluate a co-product—bio-char—as a soil amendment to increase carbon sequestration.
  • A team of researchers led by Louisiana State University received $17.2 million to enable the regular production of biomass for economically viable conversion using existing refinery infrastructure. Through new and existing industrial partnerships, this project will use energy cane and sorghum to help reinvigorate the Louisiana sugar and chemical industries.
  • A team of scientists led by the University of Tennessee received $15 million to develop sustainable feedstock production systems (switchgrass and woody biomass) that will produce low-cost, easily converted sugars for biochemical conversion to butanol, lignin byproducts and forest and mill residues, and dedicated energy crop feedstocks to produce diesel, heat and power.

USDA made these awards through its Agriculture and Food Research Initiative (AFRI). AFRI's sustainable bioenergy challenge area targets the development of regional systems for the sustainable production of bioenergy and biobased products that contribute significantly to reducing dependence on foreign oil; have net positive social, environmental, and rural economic impacts; and are compatible with existing agricultural systems. All grants are awarded over a period of five years, with continued funding contingent on annual project success.

AFRI is NIFA's flagship competitive grant program and was established under the 2008 Farm Bill. AFRI supports work in six priority areas: plant health and production and plant products; animal health and production and animal products; food safety, nutrition and health; renewable energy, natural resources and environment; agriculture systems and technology; and agriculture economics and rural communities.

Vilsack also highlighted how USDA is working with federal partners like the Department of Energy (DOE), Department of the Navy and the Federal Aviation Administration to improve our country's energy security and provide sustainable jobs in communities across the country. Last month, President Obama announced a partnership between USDA, DOE and Navy to invest up to $510 million during the next three years in partnership with the private sector to produce advanced, drop-in aviation and marine biofuels to power military and commercial transportation.

Renewable energy production is a key to sustainable economic development in rural America, and USDA through renewable energy programs authorized in the 2008 farm bill is working to escalate the production of biofuels to meet the 2022 Federal Renewable Fuels standard goal.

Much of this biofuel will come from feedstocks produced by America's farmers and ranchers. For example, USDA has announced the investment of $80 million payments to 160 energy producers in 41 states under the Bioenergy Program for Advanced Biofuels (Section 9005 of the 2008 farm bill).

Payments are based on the amount of biofuels a recipient produces from renewable biomass, other than corn kernel starch. Eligible examples include biofuels derived from cellulose, crop residue, animal, food and yard waste material, biogas (landfill and sewage waste treatment gas), vegetable oil and animal fat. The payments are made to eligible producers to support and ensure an expanding production of advanced biofuels.

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