Speaking recently at the University of Chicago’s
Booth School of Business, the science director for the U.S. Department of
Energy was asked to name a DOE program that had produced tangible results in
the last decade.

Her answer was tied to work taking place every
day in Wisconsin.

The nation’s three Bioenergy Research Centers —
including one in Madison — are cranking out transformative research that is
beginning to find its way into companies and the broader economy, said Patricia
Dehmer, chief science officer for DOE.

“The Bioenergy Research Centers are 6 years
old now,” Dehmer said, “and a lot of what’s coming out of them is
making its way into industry. We actually have start-up companies associated
now with the Bioenergy Research Centers, so I think that’s a success

Read this column in the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel here

Three centers were launched in 2007 at Oak Ridge
National Laboratory in Tennessee, Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory in
California, and through a partnership between the University of Wisconsin-Madison
and Michigan State University. Housed at the Wisconsin Energy Institute in
Madison, the Great Lakes Bioenergy Research Center was the only one of the
three not to be tied to an existing federal laboratory.

It has nonetheless held its own in intellectual
output. Nationally, the three centers have produced more than 1,100
peer-reviewed reports and 400 invention disclosures and patent applications, as
well as scores of industry partnerships. The Great Lakes center is responsible
for 530 of those publications, 72 invention disclosures, 65 patent applications
being processed, 23 licenses or options under negotiation and other business
partnerships — including one start-up.

“I think some of the things in Bioenergy
have definitely made a difference — in the designer microbes and cellulosic
biofuels,” said Dehmer, as reported by Forbes.com.

Despite the explosion in recovery of natural gas
and oil through hydraulic fracturing and horizontal drilling technologies, the
nature of energy production and use continues to change. Domestic companies are
taking steps now to prepare for regulatory changes, shifts in public perception
and offshore demand for fossil fuels that could eventually drive up U.S. energy

“With 80% of our fuels being fossil fuels
today, basically the technology we use is burning them, (which) makes heat that
in turn produces useful work,” Dehmer said. “If we look to the future
and essentially where science is focused today, it’s something very different.
It’s looking to the materials and chemical processes needed to convert
essentially renewable energy to electricity and fuels directly to that useful

That’s why the Great Lakes Bioenergy Center, as
well as the other federal Bioenergy labs, is working on new approaches for
engineering nonfood crops for biofuels production; re-engineering microbes to
produce advanced biofuels such as “green” gasoline, diesel and even
jet fuel; and finding ways to grow nonfood crops on marginal lands so as not to
compete with food production.

It’s not easy stuff — and deliberately so,
according to Tim Donohue, the principal investigator at the Great Lakes
Bioenergy Center. Donohue is an expert on how microbes harness and convert
solar energy, which relates to how energy is derived from biomass.

“One of the things that makes our research
unique is that we made a strategic decision early on to set our bar very high
and not to go after only the low-hanging fruit,” Donohue said. That meant
pursuing technologies designed to squeeze every bit of available carbon — the
primary energy source — from plants and organic materials. As a result, he
said, some of the “biggest game-changers are also the hardest to

But they’re also the most sustainable over the
long term, economically and otherwise. Some other renewable energy sources
continue to face strong headwinds: Wind turbines can be difficult to build if
there is community opposition, solar energy prices are dropping but still high;
and traditional corn-based ethanol is under fire on several fronts.

As a result, many in industry are betting on
advanced biofuels for the long haul. Industry collaborators at the Great Lakes
Bioenergy Research Center include Archer Daniels Midland, Borregaard LignoTech,
BP, Cargill, DuPont, Elanco, ExxonMobil and General Motors.

It won’t be tomorrow or even the next day, but
dividends will spring from biofuels research underway in Wisconsin and beyond.
In a state that has plenty of biomass and no natural gas, oil or coal, that’s a
business advantage.