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A close-up shot of three ears of corn.

Today's U.S. ethanol industry is overwhelmingly based on corn and centered in the Midwest. Researchers at the University are also studying ways to derive ethanol from agricultural waste, such as corn stalks.

Investing in renewable energy

From eNews, August 4, 2005

In the United States, ethanol--the most widely used biofuel today--is largely derived from the starch in corn. Cellulosic ethanol, a.k.a ethanol from agricultural and forestry residues or plant waste materials (such as corn stalks and wood chips), is not commercially available now because it's expensive to produce; the technology to break down plant waste isn't as efficient yet as that for corn-based ethanol. However, that may soon change.

J. Stephen Gantt and Simo Sarkanen, two University of Minnesota researchers who have discovered an enzyme that's capable of more efficiently breaking down plant waste, are among those who were recently recognized by the Initiative for Renewable Energy and the Environment (IREE) for their efforts to develop renewable energy. IREE awarded more than $8.5 million to Gantt, Sarkanen, and 59 other faculty members, as well as 65 graduate students and post-docs, 18 undergraduates, and 8 research scientists at U campuses and research and outreach centers around the state.

"The overwhelming response to our request for proposals reflects the deep and enterprising pool of talent within the University to address renewable energy issues," says Bob Elde, IREE Executive Committee chair and dean of the College of Biological Sciences. IREE, created by the Minnesota Legislature in 2003 with funds from Xcel Energy and part of the President's Initiative on the Environment and Renewable Energy, is out to make the University a leader in renewable energy technologies and help turn Minnesota into a net exporter of energy.

In addition to speeding up the production of cellulosic ethanol, the other research areas include the production and distribution of hydrogen, solar thermal heating systems, and the conversion of livestock waste to energy and products.

"We hope [the] research will lead Minnesota to a sustainable future and produce highly skilled people to work in renewable energy in a variety of settings," says Elde.

To view or download a summary of the 24 IREE-funded projects, visit the IREE Web site.

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