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Thursday, May 23, 2024

UF ethanol plant to use sugarcane, storm debris as fuel

Florida's sweet sugarcane industry will feed UF's newest venture into environmentally safe ethanol production.

UF received ,20 million from the Florida Legislature earlier this summer to build the state's first plant that creates ethanol from biomass. It is now negotiating with two companies for the location of the plant's host site: Florida Crystals in South Bay and the Buckeye Corporation in Perry, located in North Florida. The site will be fully operational in February 2009, said Mary Duryea, associate dean for research at UF's Food and Agricultural Sciences. Cellulosic ethanol, which UF plans to produce at its plant, is a better fit for the state of Florida than the more common ethanol made from corn, said Lonnie Ingram, a UF microbiology professor. The ethanol can be made from sugarcane residue, hurricane debris and the inedible portions of plants, such as stems and leaves, Ingram said.

The process, created by Ingram, is different than current methods of producing cellulosic ethanol because it uses genetically altered organisms, such as E. coli, to break down plant matter.

"Sometimes corn gets a bum rap," Ingram said. "That shouldn't be the case. All ethanol is good ethanol. We are just doing something that fits what we can produce in terms of biomass."

The plant will conduct large-scale research on cellulosic ethanol production to test its practical applications, said Eric Wachsman, director for the Florida Institute for Sustainable Energy at UF. Investors will visit the plant to see if they are willing to risk mass-producing the technology, Wachsman said.

The plant is intended to reduce the nation's dependence on corn-based ethanol. Producing the 160 billion gallons of ethanol needed per year would require 472 billion ears of corn and use 37 million acres. If the entire state of Iowa, the nation's leading producer of corn, were converted into one giant cornfield, it would still be more than a thousand miles short of the acreage needed to replace gas with ethanol completely.

The United States produced 4.89 billion gallons of ethanol in 2006, according to ethanol.org, which is run by the American Coalition for Ethanol. This is equivalent to about 3 percent of the country's total gasoline consumption. The United States uses 140 billion gallons of gas per year.

UF has been in the process of going green with ethanol use for several years. On Aug. 31, the university opened its first ethanol fuel station. The pump cost UF ,34,000, said Jonathan Priest, the motor pool superintendent. It uses E85 ethanol, a blend of 85 percent pure ethanol and 15 percent unleaded gasoline. E85 is the most commonly used form of ethanol.

Ethanol is currently produced in three forms: E10, E85 and ethanol. The latter is 100 percent pure

The university has two electric-powered cars, 12 hybrids, 50 ethanol vehicles and 36 biodiesel vehicles, Priest said. UF gets all its fuel from an independent company that supplies gas to the Gainesville area, but it often uses the biodiesel produced on campus.

UF used 7,815 gallons of ethanol on campus this year.

"Hopefully the use and production of ethanol will continue to go up on campus," Priest said.

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Sara Hutton, a wildlife ecology and conservation junior, said she was excited that the university had found a way to produce ethanol in a more environmentally safe manner. Ethanol production using corn has a more severe effect on the environment and the state?s limited resources.

"UF has a great plan," she said. "They are trying to improve technology."

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