The U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) is exploring innovative alternative fuels production programs using materials other than corn. USDA Undersecretary for Rural Development Dallas Tonsager said the agency is beginning to broaden its focus to new crops and biomass materials for ethanol production.

As part of this commitment, Tonsager said the USDA will help new production operations become operational through a number of grants, loans and loan guarantees being offered. Tonsager said the finances are specifically available to assist second and third generation biofuel development projects.

corn field

The USDA is expanding its focus on alternative fuels to advance second and third generation biofuel production from crops and materials other than corn. Part of this includes funding available to assist start-ups, research and development programs and projects already underway through the joint USDA-DOE Biomass Research and Development Initiative. Credit: NAFTC

“They are generally very, very expensive projects,” said Tonsager. “So, we are interested in working with anybody who is interested in developing those kinds of ventures, and we are interested in getting into almost any kind of material that might be used for biofuel.”

Moreover, the “USDA has set up five research centers across the country that are devoted to looking at different materials that could be potentially used [for advanced technology biofuel production],” Tonsager said. “Anything that has a lot of carbohydrates that can be converted to a sugar fairly simply is a candidate.”

On top of utilizing different high-carbohydrate crops, Tonsager said that biodiesel and jet fuel can also be produced from other biomatter such as animal fats and oils.

In addition to new financing initiatives, the USDA and the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) have already invested a total of $47 million in eight research and development projects across the country as part of the Biomass Research and Development Initiative. The objectives of the initiative are to support production of biofuels and bioenergy from a variety of biomass sources, to increase the availability of renewable alternative fuels and biobased products and to diversify the nation’s energy resources.

Following are just some of the innovative projects already funded through the USDA’s Biomass Research and Development Initiative:

  • Researchers at Cellana in Hawaii are unlocking the potential of algae farms by studying how by-products from algae biofuel production can be used to create protein supplements for livestock feed.
  • A three-year project at Domtar Paper Company in South Carolina is exploring ways to use the low-value by-products and wastes from paper mills to produce higher value sugar and oil based biofuels.
  • In New Jersey, Exelus Inc. is developing drought and salt tolerant crops with the hopes of expanding biofuel producing crops into currently unused and hostile growing environments.
  • University of Kentucky researchers are developing on-farm processing techniques to convert biomass to a mixture of butanol, ethanol, acetone and organic acids in order to make the products more easily transportable to biorefineries for further processing.

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