Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack visited biotech start-up Agrivida in Bedford, Mass. today to talk about USDA’s wise investments in R&D operations looking to make fuels from biomass. Prior to his remarks, he took a tour of the 40-employee firm’s lab space to see how they are spending some $3 million in government grant money. C&EN feels pretty wise, too, because it visited Agrivida almost a year ago for a similar tour.
The company was founded by two young entrepreneurs with freshly minted PhD’s in chemical engineering from MIT. Jeremy Johnson and R. Michael Raab found a way to engineer plants (the green variety) to produce the enzymes that cellulosic ethanol producers normally have to add to biomass to derive the sugars that can then be fermented into ethanol (got that?). Those enzymes can get pretty pricey, so if the plants can make them, then fuel producers might save a buck.
And saving a buck – especially if you’re in government – is all the rage these days. In his brief remarks, the Secretary said three times that his agency knows it needs to “spend less and spend wisely.” He said that government spending to spur innovation to make sugar-based fuels more cheaply – and competitive with fossil fuels – would help to “restructure the rural economy” and he predicted that “biorefineries will be dotting the landscape around rural communities” which will bring many jobs.
This week, USDA teamed up with DOE to award biomass R&D grants to eight projects that all have an eye on the bottom line. It’s clear that the government grant award-pickers are well versed on the financial (as well as technical) hurdles that the biomass-to-whatever industry faces. For example, the $5.1 million grant to Exelus, a firm in Livingston, N.J., will support “work to develop energy crops with improved tolerance to drought and salt stress to enhance yields on marginal lands,” and it will also ”redesign a process to make hydrocarbon fuels using new catalysts and chemistry that avoids the high temperatures and large energy inputs required by current processes.”
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