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[MAY 3, 2004]  URBANA -- A recent conference in Orlando on industrial biotechnology and bioprocessing drew twice as many people as anticipated. Industry representatives and scientists came together to look at options for the future of fuel and bio-based products. Judging from the attendance, interest in biofuels and bio-based products appears to be high.

"Renewables make sense," said Hans Blaschek, a microbiologist from the University of Illinois who was in attendance at the Orlando conference. "You start with something that costs zero, or even minus if people are willing to pay to get rid of it, and convert it into a valuable product. It's just the process, the technology that's holding it up. We need to get the price of producing an end product down and make it economically competitive to petroleum products."

Blaschek has been working with Archer Daniels Midland to produce butanol from corn waste at their plant in Decatur. "Due to the recent ban of MTBE in California, ethanol and butanol are looking better and better as fuel alternatives because they can be derived from biomass instead of petroleum and emit a cleaner end product from a car's exhaust pipe," said Blaschek. He added that the product currently marketed in Illinois as ethanol is really only 10 percent ethanol, but even at that low level it can help reduce air pollution.

It's just a matter of time before biofuels and bio-based products become economically competitive said Blaschek. Already companies such as British Petroleum and Shell Canada are getting on board, considering the development of bio-refineries. And corn byproducts aren't the only thing being looked at. The Canadian company Iogen is converting hay and straw and other plant products into ethanol.


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"We have an estimated 20 million tons of cellulose in the Midwest," said Blaschek.

He said that the petroleum industry is so well-established that the biomass industry couldn't compete. Now, it seems companies are seeing that biofuels and other bio-products could be produced at a competitive price and want to get into the game. It's a matter of developing relationships and synergies to move the process forward.

"There's a huge list of products produced from petroleum, but the list of potential products from bio-refineries is growing too," Blaschek said.  In addition to ethanol and butanol, bio-refineries are producing lactic and acetic acids and acetone and exploring other possible products.

"The future is in making the production of biofuels and other bio-products more economical."

[University of Illinois news release]


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