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Research partners receive $4.2 million grant

Oklahoma State University and its partner institutions in industry are receiving $4.2 million from the U.S. Department of Agriculture to continue groundbreaking work in the development of biofuels.

The OSU Division of Agricultural Sciences and Natural Resources’ Ray Huhnke said the funding received through USDA’s National Institute of Food and Agriculture represents great news for the public and diverse stakeholders within Oklahoma’s bioenergy industry.

“These funds will enhance key work being done by our cooperating scientists and engineers to develop advances in practices and technologies necessary to ensure efficient and sustainable production of cellulosic ethanol feedstocks,” he said.

Huhnke believes the visibility of the Oklahoma Bioenergy Center and the established partnerships between OSU, the University of Oklahoma and the Samuel Roberts Noble Foundation played a key role in securing the federal funding.

“This funding targets large-scale production, a critical step building upon more than a decade’s worth of scientific study by OSU and partner researchers aimed at creating an economically viable and environmentally sustainable biobased economy,” Huhnke said. “We’ve been conducting small-scale studies in feedstock production and harvest logistics for years. This new level of research signifies the final step in providing reliable supplies to a biorefinery.”

In other words, the agricultural and energy industries have been hearing about the coming biobased economy for awhile now; the large-scale research efforts are a reflection that anticipation may be coming to fruition as demonstrated by the construction of Abengoa Bioenergy’s ethanol plant in Hugoton, Kan.

Robert E. Whitson, dean and director of the division and vice president of agricultural programs at OSU, said Oklahoma is – in many ways – the intersection between agriculture and energy.

“The $4.2 million grant and the presence of the Abengoa plant are indicators of how OSU and our cooperating partners are particularly well-positioned to take a lead role in helping the United States become a viable biobased economy, and in ensuring that Oklahoma plays a particularly key role,” Whitson said.

It is a belief echoed by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. In May, the EPA published proposed changes to the renewable fuel standard program. Based on the proposed rules, the EPA was of the opinion that approximately 85 percent of the production of dedicated energy crops in the United States in 2022 could come from Oklahoma.

The $4.2 million in funding will enhance the ability of division scientists and engineers from the departments of biosystems and agricultural engineering, agricultural economics and plant and soil sciences in using large-scale feedstock production research fields to evaluate the economic and environmental sustainability of switchgrass, mixed-species perennial grasses and annual biomass cropping systems. Feedstock quality characteristics as desired by the biorefinery industry will be assessed under varied harvest, handling, storage and pre-processing scenarios.

“Of particular interest to many Oklahoma producers, the funding will enhance the capability of our partner Noble Foundation scientists to study dual-use cropping systems, examining how livestock production and biomass harvest might best work together to maximize profit potential,” Huhnke said.

As an offshoot of that focus, scientists with OSU and the Noble Foundation will also be evaluating the economics behind producing and marketing bioenergy crops. The results should help agricultural producers determine whether or not raising bioenergy crops is a viable option for their specific operation.

Huhnke, who serves as director of the division’s Biobased Products and Energy Center, added that the success of the OSU Biofuels Team and its cooperating professionals in garnering the federal funding reflects well on the division, university and state as a whole.

“The competition was extremely fierce, with more than 1,000 pre-proposals being submitted nationally,” he said. “In the end, we were one of about 10 projects to receive funding.”

Bob Westerman, DASNR assistant vice president for program support, lauded Huhnke and the entire OSU Biofuels Team as an example of the important work conducted through the division’s statewide Oklahoma Agricultural Experiment Station system.

“It’s a great example of how our scientists and engineers work to advance understanding and technology that ultimately provides opportunities for and improves the lives of residents in Oklahoma and throughout the region,” he said. “It’s the very essence of our land-grant mission.”

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