Biofuels technology center under construction

By Holly Jessen | October 14, 2010
Posted Oct. 20, 2010

At one time, southern Virginia did booming business in textiles, tobacco and furniture. Today, the textile industry has virtually disappeared, the tobacco industry dramatically reduced and the furniture industry is suffering.

In response to these issues, the Institute for Advanced Learning and Research (IALR) in Danville, Va., was created as a "catalyst for economic and community transformation," said Liam Leightley, executive director. IALR is made up of four research centers to explore projects ranging from biofuels feedstocks to motorsports engineering. Now under construction at the institute is a building to house the Sustainable Energy Technology Center (SEnTeC), which will focus on pilot-scale feedstock research projects for biofuels, including cellulosic ethanol.

A groundbreaking for the 25,000-square-foot facility was held Oct. 15. The project is being paid for with a grant from the Virginia Tobacco Indemnification Commission and Community Revitalization Commission. "We expect to have the building completed by this time next year," Leightley told EPM, "and we'll have it operating by the beginning of 2012."

SEnTeC will conduct research and development projects for ethanol, biodiesel and bioproducts, evaluating how southern Virginia's land could be used for renewable energy projects. The technology center will work to bring products to the marketplace as quickly as possible. "We create products and products will create jobs," he said, adding that the ultimate goal is to attract biorefineries to build in that region.

Companies or organizations considering biofuel projects can use the facilities for evaluating conversion technologies, either by asking SEnTeC to do it or using the facilities themselves, he said. In fact, SEnTeC has already had requests from groups wanting to conduct research there.

Getting the new technology center built is a piece of the puzzle that will help the institute further its work in biofuel feedstocks, said Barry Flinn, director of the Institute for Sustainable and Renewable Resources, also part of IALR. Research on biomass including hybrid poplar, switchgrass and Jerusalem artichoke will be able to move on to biofuel conversion research at nearby SEnTeC, once construction is completed.

One research project to increase the yield of switchgrass recently received a nearly $740,000 grant from the U.S. DOE, he said. The goal is to use naturally occurring bacterial endophytes to promote growth in switchgrass.

Another project explores miscanthus as a biofuel feedstock, Leightley said. Although miscanthus propagates from rhizome rootstock, IALR researchers have been able to successfully grow the plant in the lab from tissue culture. In 2009, thousands of plants were transplanted by local farmers. "Those plants now are growing extremely well," he said.