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Inside Iowa State, a newspaper for faculty and staff, is published by the Office of University Relations.

Nov. 3, 2006

The big picture at ISU

A biorenewables primer

Clear the track; this train is moving.

Four years ago this fall, something called "the bioeconomy initiative" was among five academic initiatives to receive central start-up funds. First-year president Gregory Geoffroy announced his quest for "big impact" ideas that would respond to real needs in Iowa and the country.

As intended, the initiative has generated not just more research, but more collaborative research into using plants and agricultural crops to produce chemicals, fuels, materials and energy. Some of the motivation has been national, even global in scale: reduce this country's reliance on imported petroleum and reduce air pollution associated with petroleum-based fuels. Others are more backyard: boost rural development in Iowa by creating new markets demanding more or new crops.

At Iowa State, more than 60 faculty and staff have developed cross-disciplinary research, education and extension programs that promote greater and more efficient use of biorenewable resources. Lead researchers come from departments within the colleges of Agriculture, Engineering and Liberal Arts and Sciences.

Nearly 400 people -- on campus and at Extension centers around the state -- participated in an Oct. 23 town hall meeting on biorenewable resources hosted by Geoffroy.

With its natural resources, Iowa is positioned to be the world's center in renewable fuels in 20 years, Geoffroy said. Because of Iowa State's expertise and leadership in this area, Ames could be the "capital" of that center.

'Iowa is on the cusp'

"I believe that Iowa is on the cusp of one of the biggest changes in its history, and we need to help Iowa get ready for it," Geoffroy said. "This drive for renewable fuels will profoundly impact Iowa, with lots of challenges, many opportunities and a lot of unknowns."

The Plant Sciences Institute and the Office of Biorenewables Programs are key research centers coordinating some of the research. A Geoffroy-appointed, 12-member steering committee meets weekly to discuss what the university is doing -- and preparing to do -- in the area of biorenewables. Vice president for research and economic development John Brighton chairs that committee.

An industry success has been corn-based ethanol, produced from the more easily fermentable sugars and carbohydrates in the corn kernel. Iowa produces almost twice as much ethanol as any other state in the country. Growing attention is focusing on using the fibrous part of the corn plant, as well as alternative crops such as switchgrass and kenaf, to produce ethanol.

As Geoffroy noted last week, it takes more than a great team of plant scientists for Iowa State to be a player in the biorenewables field. Other useful research would, for example, improve the engineering of ethanol plants to increase their efficiency, forecast the economic impact on the state of a large biorenewables sector, help develop state and national policies that support the industry and address issues such as the growing for food vs. growing for fuel land use question.

"These problems are inherently multidisciplinary so it's very, very important that we know where all the resources are in the university so that you can be called upon when opportunities arise," Geoffroy told the audience. Researchers with expertise to offer who aren't involved in this effort yet should send an e-mail to Brighton,