Msu Ethanol Study Could Create Thousands of Jobs

by : Lauren Woods

Michigan will get at least 100 new jobs with the possibility for thousands more - thanks to the $50 million ethanol research money enclosed in the ethanol research grant awarded last Tuesday to the Michigan State University. The money will be used by MSU to research ways on how factories can convert plants other than corn into fuel.

The money puts MSU in the midst of a main federal effort to turn common plants into ethanol that could replace gasoline in the nation's vehicles, an effort whose "Holy Grail," one MSU official said, is a Michigan economy fed by fuel from plants.

"At the ultimate level, what it would look like if Michigan has a thriving bio-economy, would clearly be in the thousands and thousands of jobs," said Steve Pueppke, the director of MSU's Office of Biobased Technologies. If scientists are successful, millions of acres of Michigan land could be used to grow plants for processing in Michigan factories into ethanol or more exotic fuels.

Scientists are eager to use ethanol produced from cellulose which is a material found in all plant matter. The cellulosic ethanol would cut greenhouse-gas emissions by as much as 80 percent over gasoline, a four-fold improvement over corn-based ethanol. But current technology is not efficient enough to make cellulosic ethanol cost-effective.

MSU will get the money over five years in a partnership with the University of Wisconsin and several other institutions - one of three groups picked by the Department of Energy to start bioenergy research centers countrywide. The Wisconsin-MSU effort is the only center awarded to U.S. universities - two national laboratories that are part of the Department of Energy will host the other centers.

Several sources familiar with the program said that MSU and the University of Wisconsin will team up to host one of three federal bio-energy research centers, hubs to figure out the science that would allow conversion of ordinary plant matter, not corn, into fuel to replace gasoline. Renewable-energy experts consider the effort to be vital as the United States seeks to curb its use of oil imports and fight global warming.

"Having that intellectual capital often creates spin-offs and startups" that can generate jobs, said John DeCicco, a Michigan-based automotive expert for Environmental Defense, a group that advocates ethanol research as one solution to global warming. "It's very simple. We're looking at a need for some breakthroughs in fuel technology. It's been very difficult, and it's very, very important."

Ethanol is the most promising approaching technology to reduce the nation's reliance on gasoline. It can be made domestically and it produces less of the harmful gases connected with global warming. But nearly all of the ethanol which is currently produced comes from corn, and there is no way the nation's corn producers can produce enough to make a huge impression in gasoline use.

Federal officials said that the bioenergy centers will focus on turning common grasses, wood chips or other material into ethanol. Such fuel produces even lower levels of greenhouse gases than corn-based ethanol, but for now, it costs too much to bring to market.

The effort MSU will help lead will search for genetic solutions to the problem. MSU will concentrate on plant genetics, looking for ways to use, or perhaps modify, plant genetics to make it easier to transform them into ethanol. Wisconsin researchers will concentrate on developing microbes that could be used in the ethanol production development.

MSU also will work on what scientists call the "sustainability" problem, said G. Philip Robertson, a crop and soil sciences professor. With this grant, auto enthusiasts could expect enhanced engines and other auto parts to complement ethanol fuel.