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.
It appears to me that this kind of investment is serious enough to provide the resources to these institutions to make serious advances in the biofuels research area. This will have large implications for all of agriculture and beyond, from the crop sciences, ag engineers, plant breeders, microbiologists, etc.
For farmers it may mean the introduction of new crops such as the grass miscanthus. It may fundamentaly change the type of agriculture that is conducted in the United States. This also provides the opportunity for this country to become more energy independent and not deal with unstable foreign oil.