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Fueling the Bioeconomy, Michigan State University

“Go Green” isn’t simply a game-day chant for Michigan State University (MSU); it’s a motto for harnessing the power of safe, renewable energy sources and using the University’s research efforts to develop new biobased technologies.

The Office of Biobased Technologies (OBT), which is located on MSU’s East Lansing campus and has a high-speed connection to Merit’s backbone network, serves as the hub of biobased efforts at MSU, shepherding the research efforts and resources of the University and pursuing private and public sector initiatives that support the growth of the bioeconomic sector. OBT works with MSU scientists and educators to provide assistance to biotechnology organizations, government, and others.
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Over 100 MSU faculty members are conducting important biobased research related to plant material production, raw plant material processing, systems integration, and business development. The new methods they are discovering could have a major impact on biofuel production and biobased technologies:

  • An MSU-patened process developed by Bruce Dale, associate director of OBT and University Distinguished Professor of chemical engineering and materials science, simplifies the process for creating cellulosic biofuel from corn. The AFEX (ammonia fiber expansion) pretreatment process uses ammonia to make the breakdown of cellulose and hemicellulose in plants 75 percent more efficient than an acid pretreatment method used by biofuel producers. The new process reduces the time and cost of turning plant material into biofuel. The University hopes to transfer the new technology to a cellulosic ethanol plant in Michigan.
  • Dennis Miller, professor of mechanical engineering, has been working with canola plants to develop biodiesel. In 2008, Miller partnered with General Motors in designing new engines that run on canola-based fuels. Last fall, the MSU Grounds Department used the canola biodiesel fuel to power some of its lawnmowers.
  • MSU researcher, Kurt Thelen, is investigating ways Michigan farmers can grow energy crops more efficiently. Approximately 400 gallons of ethanol can be produced by an acre of corn grain, while an acre of switchgrass can produce close to 1,0000 gallons of ethanol. Thelen and his research team are investigating potential energy crops and methods to maximize their yield and energy output.

Christoph Benning, MSU professor of biochemistry and molecular biology, and his team of researchers have identified a protein necessary for chloroplast development in plants. Chloroplasts convert sunlight, carbon dioxide, and water into sugars and oxygen during photosynthesis. Researchers are investigating how the protein, Trigalactosyldiacylglycerol 4, effects plants that produce oils, such as corn and soybeans, and their discoveries could possibly lead to new plant varieties specifically created for biofuel production.

Research Partnerships

In addition to the efforts on its own campus, MSU is working with other universities to pursue bioenergy research.

MSU is undertaking a partnership with another Merit Network Governing Member, Michigan Technological University (MTU), to investigate forest-based cellosic biofuels. In March, the federal government allocated $1.4 million for the biofuel research program at the Michigan State University Upper Peninsula Tree Improvement Center (UPTIC) in Escanaba. MSU and MTU scientists will work together to research wood-based biofuels and demonstrate the best ways to use Michigan’s vast forest resources to benefit the state’s rural communities using environmentally and economically sustainable methods.

In 2007, Michigan State University and the University of Wisconsin-Madison received a $50 million grant from the U.S. Department of Energy to establish the Great Lakes Bioenergy Research Center (GLBRC), which is located in Madison, Wisconsin. The GLBRC works to remove bottlenecks in the bioenergy pipeline and educate on issues related to bioenergy. GLBRC research programs focus on five areas related to bioenergy: improving plant biomass, biomass processing, biomass conversion to energy products, sustainable bioenergy development, and technology integration.

Through the collective efforts of its scientists and partner organizations, Michigan State University is tackling complex bioenergy research. The outcomes could impact the ways we power our automobiles and lead to economic benefits for Michigan.

About Michigan State University

Michigan State University has been advancing knowledge and transforming lives through innovative teaching, research, and outreach for over 150 years. MSU is a member of the Association of American Universities, the National Association of State Universities and Land-Grant Colleges, and the Big Ten athletic conference. Michigan State University founded Merit Network with the University of Michigan and Wayne State University in 1966.