Friday, September 22, 2006

Grant Fuels Alternative Energy Research

Grant Fuels Alternative Energy Research
By Sharon Stello

DAVIS - Vehicles may one day run on fuel made from wine-grape skins and seeds, leftover rice straw, orchard tree prunings, nutshells, fruit pits and other farming biomass.

High-energy crops such as switchgrass, canola, sunflower, beets or fast-maturing trees such as cottonwood and eucalyptus also could be turned into fuel.

Exploring these ideas, University of California, Davis, researchers will spend the next five years developing clean and affordable, renewable transportation fuels from farm and forest residues, urban wastes and crops grown specifically for energy with up to $25 million in funding from Chevron Corp., the university announced Tuesday.

Alternative fuels are needed to reduce the United States' dependence on foreign oil supplies and to reduce air pollution linked to global warming.

The most familiar kinds of biofuels are ethanol made from corn and biodiesel made with vegetable oils or animal fats. But UC Davis researchers want to examine the potential for making fuel from "lignocellulosic material" that makes up plant stems, leaves, trunks and branches. Cellulose, one of three major structural components of plant cell walls, has been called the world's most abundant biological material.
This work is a good fit for the university, which already has top research and teaching programs focused on hydrogen and biofuels as well as electric and gasoline-electric hybrid vehicles and power generation from biomass, said Barry Klein, vice chancellor for research at the university. UC Davis also has strong programs in converting food-processing wastes and agricultural residues to energy.

The Chevron funding is "a great opportunity for us" to move forward in this field, he added.

"It helps us further our vision in biofuels and bioenergy," Klein said.

Chevron's latest investment in advanced biofuels research is the logical next step in its pursuit of commercially viable technologies across the energy spectrum, company officials said in a press release. Since 2000, Chevron has spent more than $1.5 billion on renewable energy projects and on delivering energy efficiency solutions.

In June, Chevron pledged up to $12 million over the next five years to another university, Georgia Institute of Technology, for research into alternative fuels.

"We think it's important to pursue research that could accelerate the use of biofuels since we believe they may play an integral role in diversifying the world's energy sources. Developing next-generation processing technology will help broaden the choice of feedstocks, including cellulosic materials," said Don Paul, vice president and chief technology officer for Chevron Corp., in a statement.

This grant adds to more than $7 million in funding and funding commitments received by UC Davis since 2005 for studies by the more than 100 scientists and administrators in seven major campus units that comprise the UC Davis Bioenergy Research Group.

"Everybody's starting to focus now on alternative energy," Klein said.

Energy use in the United States has increased considerably and developing countries are starting to use significant amounts of energy, straining the world's conventional fuel sources. Meanwhile, concern about global warming has come to the forefront.

"There really wasn't as intense a conversation about these things in the 1990s," Klein said. "Now, I think the whole world has woken up to realize energy is on the front page."

Reach Sharon Stello at or (530) 747-8043.

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