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Noble Tackles Alternative Fuels, Will Join in Upcoming Governor's Biofuels Conference

Posted Jul. 31, 2006

In recent months, national media have reported extensively about the potential role of ethanol in lessening the United States' dependency on gasoline. Ethanol is a subject that residents of North Texas and Oklahoma largely hear about from other parts of the country - there are few places to purchase ethanol/gasoline blends in our area, and ethanol is not a product that our states produce in any measurable quantities. Why? Most of the ethanol in the United States is produced from corn, and production facilities and distribution points tend to be located in the Midwest, where 200-plus bushels per acre is commonplace.

By 2008-09, the United States will have the capacity to produce 7 billion gallons of ethanol annually, primarily from corn. To displace 30 percent of today's petroleum consumption (the current U.S. production goal for 2030), the United States will have to produce 60 billion gallons of ethanol each year. This production target cannot be satisfied by corn alone and will require a contribution from a larger portion of U.S. agricultural producers. In addition to providing the United States with needed energy security, this will also provide many agricultural producers with a new market that will benefit rural economies.

For regions outside the Midwest to contribute to the nation's ethanol production capacity, we will need adoption and production of cellulosic energy crops. These crops will have the benefit of being tailored to different geographic regions. Cellulosic energy crops include native grasses like switchgrass, wood and wood residues, sugarcane and crop residue from corn, wheat and barley. Instead of starch (corn), these crops include an abundant supply of carbohydrates, which are ultimately converted to sugars for fermentation and distillation into ethanol.

Aligned with Noble's primary focus of improving forages for livestock production, the Noble Research Institute will initially focus on improving native grasses for use in ethanol production. Noble has targeted switchgrass as its first energy crop. Switchgrass has many important qualities: it does not compete with human food and animal feed markets; it grows on marginal lands requiring fewer inputs (e.g., fertilizer and water) than traditional food crops; it is a perennial; and it can yield five times more energy than corn.

Importantly, Noble's efforts to improve switchgrass for ethanol production will have the added benefit of improving switchgrass for livestock production and range management. Unlike corn, switchgrass as a crop can be readily incorporated into livestock production systems.

Our efforts to improve switchgrass will address a multitude of traditional production traits (for example, disease resistance), but our initial and primary target trait is yield. The economic sustainability of any dedicated energy crop will be dictated by the crop's yield density - the producible tons per acre. The critical factor in returning income to the agricultural producer or grower will be reducing the transportation costs required to transport the feedstock from the field to the biorefinery. Simply stated, the greater a crop's yield density, the smaller the radius around a biorefinery that will be required to supply the necessary volume of feedstock.

As Noble's participation in ethanol feedstock development receives more attention, we are pleased (and surprised) by the number of progressive producers who have expressed an interest in growing switchgrass/energy crops. We are often asked about the immediate availability of switchgrass as a crop. The simplest answer is that our first improved switchgrass variety is being readied for commercialization, but the market must still be developed. While the industry is growing at an unbelievable rate, there are no production-level biorefineries in the world that use cellulosic feedstocks. While that will ultimately change, we understand that markets must be developed before producers will have the necessary incentive to commit to growing energy crops.

In October, regional producers have a unique opportunity to learn more about this growing industry in Oklahoma. On October 3 and 4, on the campus of the University of Oklahoma in Norman, Governor Brad Henry will host Grow: The Oklahoma Governor's Conference on Biofuels. It will be a forum to learn more about this industry in Oklahoma. Topics will include potential income opportunities in biofuels, Oklahoma's emerging biorefining sector and the state and federal governments' commitment to growing this industry. Speakers will include representatives from the United States Departments of Agriculture and Energy, Noble Research Institute, Oklahoma State University, the University of Oklahoma and international energy companies. James Woolsey, former director of the CIA, will be the keynote speaker addressing the relationship between national security and the development of alternative transportation fuels. For more information about this conference, call (800) 203-5494.

We are excited about the role Oklahoma and North Texas may play in this new industry. Further, we look forward to the contribution of Noble researchers and agricultural specialists in creating viable, sustainable alternatives for regional producers. We will keep you up to date regarding our progress and the progress of this developing industry.