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People are beginning to accuse me of being passionate. They shouldn’t be so reluctant. When it comes to biofuels and what they can offer UT, Tennessee, the nation and even the world, I’m driving the bandwagon.

Joseph DiPietro

Joseph DiPietro recently sat down with Tennessee Today to give his thoughts on UT, switchgrass, and the future of biofuels research. Use the player below to hear his comments.

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In July, the Tennessee legislature awarded UT more than $70 million to fund a business model proposed by the UT Institute of Agriculture. Called the Tennessee Biofuels Initiative, the model details how a new, sustainable bioeconomy can be established by producing cellulosic ethanol – ethanol produced from plants and other biomass, not from grain alone as with corn-based ethanol – as an alternative fuel.

I am enthusiastic about the potential economic benefits of cellulosic ethanol and the potential new income for farmers. Yet I am just as enthusiastic about the positive environmental impacts of cellulosic ethanol production. Rather than selling unproductive land for development, farmers may be able to utilize those aesthetically pleasing green spaces for fuel production while, at the same time, benefiting wildlife. When the model is fully implemented, we expect to displace about 30 percent of our petroleum consumption with cellulosic ethanol, which could reduce carbon dioxide emissions about 50 percent. That means cleaner air for our communities, parks and the Great Smoky Mountains.

Researchers already know how to make cellulosic ethanol in the lab; but as part of the initiative, UT will construct a biorefinery that will allow us to demonstrate and refine production technology and conduct additional research. The goal is to make large quantities of cellulosic ethanol at an affordable price.

Local farmers will initially be paid incentives to produce switchgrass for the refinery, and a comprehensive research and support program will help them succeed long term. While cellulosic ethanol will be the refinery’s principal product, research associated with improving the biomass-to-ethanol conversion process is expected to yield a suite of co-products such as bioplastics. These co-products may be just as commercially valuable as the ethanol and more environmentally friendly than their petroleum-based counterparts as well.

There will be struggles along the way. Still, I can’t help but smile when I realize that UT Institute of Agriculture faculty, students and staff have a unique opportunity to discover sol-UT-ions to a few of society’s most pressing needs – greenhouse gas emissions, alternative fuels, and sustainable, environmentally friendly production. What’s got me really excited is that finding solutions, along with educating new workers and scientists, is exactly what a land-grant university is supposed to do.

For more about our efforts, see http://www.UTBioenergy.org/. A video story about the biorefinery is available online at http://www.agriculture.utk.edu/news/VideoReleases/.