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KU biorefining initiative has economic potential for rural Kansans

Monday, October 31, 2011

LAWRENCE – A biorefining initiative under way at the University of Kansas holds tremendous economic promise for rural Kansas, university and industry leaders told the Kansas Bioscience Authority today.

Bala Subramaniam, director of KU’s Center for Environmentally Beneficial Catalysis, outlined how Kansas could become a leader in what promises to be a multibillion dollar biobased chemical industry.

Chemicals from grasses and after-harvest throwaways would be significantly more valuable than biofuels such as ethanol. Since biorefineries need to be located near sources of raw materials, this would create jobs near farms and in small towns across Kansas.

“Non-food biomass could eventually replace petroleum entirely as a chemical feedstock for making everything from paints to packaging, dish soap to diapers,” said Subramaniam. “Such products are more profitable than fuels, so developing biorefineries that produce chemicals could help establish Kansas as a global leader in the use of renewable biomass to stimulate rural economic development.”

“If the state captured as little as 1 percent of the current U.S. chemicals market, that would represent a $7.2 billion per-year industry in Kansas. By comparison, total Kansas manufacturing in 2010 generated $17.4 billion in revenue,” he said.

A public-private partnership to invest in research is essential to Kansas being a leader in biorefining, he said, which fits in with the Kansas Bioscience Authority’s mission of spurring research and economic growth.

KU was joined in its presentation to the KBA by Tom Binder, senior vice president of research at Archer Daniels Midland, which is partnering with the university to develop biorefining technologies. ADM, the third-largest commodities company in the world, will initially relocate two company scientists to Lawrence early in 2012. They will be housed at the Bioscience & Technology Business Center and will work closely with researchers at the adjacent CEBC.

Chancellor Bernadette Gray-Little told the KBA that biorefining research and commercialization is among the university’s highest research priorities.

“We have existing strengths in this area, and the potential economic benefit to Kansas is enormous. Replacing petroleum with biomass provides a sustainable domestic source of chemicals and can create jobs across Kansas,” she said.

Kansas currently ranks fourth in the U.S. in the availability of biomass, said Subramaniam. Five percent of Kansas cropland, or 1.4 million acres, is sufficient to capture 1 percent of the U.S. chemicals market, or $7.2 billion per year, and would involve approximately 90 processing facilities, 8,100 direct jobs and indirect employment for 32,000 Kansans. In addition to biomass, Kansas also has a unique combination of other valuable assets such as oil, natural gas, wind energy and pipeline/transportation infrastructure that are essential to support a thriving biobased-chemicals industry.

ADM has sponsored two proprietary research projects at KU for making chemicals from biomass. The findings of those projects led to a three-year, $2.4 million biorefining grant to KU’s CEBC, with half the funds provided by the Kansas Bioscience Authority.

The success of that program was a major factor in KU receiving a four-year, $5.6 million grant from the U.S. Department of Agriculture this year. ADM is also a partner in this grant, providing approximately $1.4 million of in-kind funding.

CEBC currently partners with eight other chemical, energy and technology development companies, including Procter & Gamble and Evonik, on biomass-to-chemicals research projects. Subramaniam said that continued state investments should attract even more companies to Kansas.

Gray-Little added that the biorefining initiative ties in well with the expansion of KU’s engineering enrollment approved earlier this year by the governor and the Legislature, as well as the Governor’s Rural Opportunity Zones program, which is designed to repopulate and rejuvenate rural Kansas communities.

“Fulfilling the potential for biorefining will require us to provide the industry with a greater number of engineering graduates,” she said. “We aim to meet both those challenges.”



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