MSU Studies Biomass Options

“The purpose is to really jumpstart the renewable fuels industry, which is part ethanol production, by making it more cost efficient,” said Steven G. Pueppke, director of the Office of Biobased Technologies (OBT) at MSU. “The ethanol plants that you see today produce it from corn seeds, which is a fairly simple process. They’re basically distilled, except the alcohol is made for burning as a fuel.

“Our growth is focused on using other raw materials, other sources of biomass, in particular cellulose, which is a scientific term that means things like wood, residues from agricultural crops like corn, corn cobs, leaves and stems. Right now we produce huge amounts of those in Michigan. If we can find a way to convert the cellulose in them into ethanol cost efficiently or to convert other constituents of those materials into renewable fuels, we’d be much better off. The long-term solution is to use those other materials.”

The right kind of plants and crops are needed for those fuels.

“They get improved and optimized by biochemists, molecular biologists and plant physiologists, where they can go into the cells of plants and make them better,” said Pueppke. “[MSU has] a very strong capacity to create varieties of crops that are suitable for Michigan’s climate and soils. We know how to fertilize them. We know how to deal with the diseases that come along. I’m certain that was a major reason why we got the grant.”

As a plant molecular biologist and administrator who came from the University of Illinois, Pueppke himself is an example of the highly skilled employees this project will bring to Michigan. The grant is expected to create 100 new positions in Michigan, and MSU already has about 150 researchers in the OBT. The university is also working with the private sector on this project.

“We have a particular emphasis on research and a very strong emphasis to create partnerships either with other institutions or the private sector,” said Pueppke. “If we create the bioeconomy we think we’re going to create in Michigan, it will be done by firms of various sizes and entrepreneurs who actually go out and grow, process and transport these things, and we will partner to the extent we can help them. The more we can do of that, the better off we all are.”

In the current economy, MSU needs partners to support its research.

“Michigan State and other institutions don’t have a capacity to self-fund all the research, so we go to either companies, federal agencies, foundations or other partners who want to work with us to get these kinds of things done,” Pueppke stated. “We have already interacted with a number of businesses. Some of them are traditional ethanol producers who want to position themselves in the future to convert other things into ethanol. Some of these firms are good-sized and some of them are very, very new. It’s a very diverse group of entities. Many of the discussions that I have with firms are either here already or are looking specifically at coming to Michigan. Where they go depends on where the raw materials are.”

Those looking for wood materials will probably go to the Upper Peninsula, while the agricultural efforts would be more in this area.

The OBT is also working with the car companies and other environmental initiatives in the state.

“We’re working with the automobile industry on transportation fuels already,” said Pueppke . “We have a relationship with NextEnergy in Detroit [which serves as the coordinating agency for the Detroit Area Clean Cities Coalition]. We know we have to do this because the auto industry today is designing the engines of the future, and we need to understand what their demands and requirements are for the transportation fuels of the future. The auto industries here in Michigan were another one of the reasons why we got the grant. We’re uniquely positioned to talk to the customer.”

The official name of the Wisconsin-Michigan consortium created for the DOE grant is the Great Lakes Bioenergy Research Center, which is housed in the OBT.

“Its executive director , Dr. Ken Keegstra, is a faculty member at Michigan State,” said Pueppke. “That’s an indication of the important role MSU is playing in the center. But the principal investigator is a faculty member at Wisconsin. Another one of the reasons that we got the grant is that a lot of the preliminary work has already been done over a long time. We have the capacity. We have a track record in this area.”

The grant will not actually be dispersed until the fall, probably in October. When all of the laboratories receive their funding, they will begin hiring new technical people. At the end of the five years, there would be an option to submit a second five-year proposal.

“The big picture goal is that we would be making renewable fuels in a cost-effective and sustainable manner, meaning that there would be enough to compete with petroleum products without doing damage to the environment,” said Pueppke. “This is the vision the Department of Energy shares with us. Five years from now, we’re not going to be 100 percent, but we will be much more than we are today. We’ll do good science, and we’ll be training the next generation of students that it’s important for science and all of us as well. We’re hopefully positioning ourselves for the growth we know is possible.

“The Holy Grail in all of this is something called a bio-refinery,” he continued. “It’s a lot like an oil refinery, except instead of taking oil and converting it into fuel, we would use something renewable—it might be ethanol, it might be making chemicals, or converting ethanol into chemicals. Also, oil is not just used for fuel. It is also turned into chemicals that are used for plastics, lubricants and paints, which are currently nonrenewable. So there would be other uses for bioenergies as well.”

And MSU wants to be at the forefront of it all.

“As President Simon says, our job is to help make Michigan State University be the go-to place in the bioeconomy,” noted Pueppke . “We are simply making the resources of Michigan State available.”

Author: Christine Caswell
Photography: Terri Shaver

Steve Pueppke, Director

Office of Biobased Technologies

Michigan State University

109 Agriculture Hall

East Lansing

517-353-9607

www.bioeconomy.msu.edu

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