A $40 million commitment from the Oklahoma Legislature will tap the vast scientific expertise, facilities and outreach of The Samuel Roberts Noble Foundation, Oklahoma State University and the University of Oklahoma to move cellulosic ethanol and other biofuel products from theory to commercially viable energy production.

These institutions will not be working in isolation; instead, their combined effort has taken the form of the Oklahoma Bioenergy Center (OBC). The OBC is a newly developed four-year research and economic development collaboration designed to make Oklahoma a leader in the nation's goal of energy independence.

“Our focus will be with cellulosic ethanol and switchgrass,” says Steven Rhines, vice president and general counsel, The Samuel Roberts Noble Foundation in Ardmore. He says the climate throughout much of the Great Plains makes grass a key element in renewable energy production. He also says production systems developed and refined in Oklahoma will help the entire southern Great Plains create or refine bioenergy production technologies.

The Oklahoma project includes four initiatives, Rhines says, with each participant capitalizing on its expertise.

Crop development will include evaluating, identifying and improving the best plant materials for increased yield, sustainability, energy conversion efficiency and biofuel output. The Noble Foundation and Oklahoma State University will take lead roles in this initiative, Rhines says.

Those two institutions also will use their experience in agricultural research and information dissemination to develop management systems for dedicated energy crops.

Oklahoma State will work on harvest, collection and transportation systems to move feedstocks from the field to commercial refineries.

The University of Oklahoma and Oklahoma State will work together to formulate effective and economical methods of transforming new feedstocks into biofuels. At least for transportation fuels, the goal is to produce a process that economically yields a liquid fuel that burns efficiently, reduces greenhouse gasses and is compatible with modern engines.

“The focus will be to work from field to refinery,” Rhines says. “We are developing a system that takes advantage of the strengths of each institutional participant, and more importantly, to deliver a comprehensive system that starts with switchgrass and ends, at least initially, with ethanol.”

He says a model production system may include three or more crops, including switchgrass, sorghum and a legume, possibly alfalfa. But, the feedstock research of the OBC is staying focused. “We will not begin a sorghum breeding program,” Rhines says. “Texas A&M already does that. However, we recognize that the ultimate bioenergy field may be diverse — we want to figure out how sorghum may work into a biofuel crop production system.”

He says alfalfa may perform several functions. It remains one of the best forage crops for the region, valuable for dairy and other livestock producers. “We can harvest the leaves for hay and use the stems for bioenergy,” Rhines says.

Alfalfa also fixes valuable nitrogen in the soil, possibly enough to sustain a switchgrass crop. Production systems may include interseeding switchgrass and alfalfa.

“The mix allows farmers to establish and maintain cash flow until they begin supplying a biorefinery,” Rhines says.

He says sorghum, either sweet sorghum or milo, may fit into a production program as either a typical cash crop or for bioenergy. The intent is to assure that as this industry develops that regional agricultural producers have options.

In addition to its research, the OBC plans to have a 1,000-acre field demonstration this summer in the Oklahoma Panhandle.

The initiative dovetails with construction of a cellulosic biorefinery in Hugoton, Kansas, just 10 miles across the Oklahoma State line. Abengoa Bioenergy will build the facility. “Abengoa is the fifth largest ethanol producer in the United States and the largest in Europe,” Rhines says.

“While Central Oklahoma is more convenient and offers easier access,” Rhines says, “the development of this commercial biorefinery, the existing agricultural infrastructure and the culture of agricultural production makes the Panhandle very important to the success of this project.”

Abengoa Bioenergy is interested in the overall energy production process, from farmers' fields through the refinery process. “Abengoa understands the economics of farm production and the need for a long-term, sustainable supply of feedstock,” Rhines says.

The immediate challenge is to get growers to switch some acres from wheat or corn to participate in this research project.

Rhines says switchgrass could add a new, economical wrinkle to some Oklahoma farms. “In the Panhandle and elsewhere, switchgrass will be challenged to be competitive with a food crop, like corn, but as available water declines and it becomes more difficult to sustain productive acres, growers may need an alternative crop,” Rhines says.

He says the goal will be less water and other expensive inputs with positive economic returns. “We can't show that yet; we need the 1,000-acre demonstration to help figure out the economics.”

He says once established, switchgrass is projected to last 7 to 10 years before reseeding is necessary. But again, these are merely projected numbers that must be proven in a production setting.

Rhines says another critical aspect of the overall project will be developing efficient harvest systems. “Switchgrass will produce a bigger crop than traditional forages, and likely will need new harvesting equipment. Without assets like the OBC's demonstration fields, it would have been a significant challenge to convince an equipment manufacturer to come into Oklahoma. The planned demonstration fields provide Oklahoma with many new opportunities.”

The potential economic outlook of a new industry provides incentive to explore these options, Rhines says. He cites Nebraska Public Power District figures that show the on-going estimated economic impact of one 50-million gallon ethanol plant after initial construction. Those estimates show:

At least 33 new full-time jobs, with a total of 120 new jobs throughout the community.

$6.7 million annual increase in the aggregate household incomes in the community.

$155 million annual increase to the state's gross output.

$70 million annually in expansion of the local economic base.

The $40 million project received its first $10 million in 2007 but requires allotments each year. “The OBC is seeking the approval of the Oklahoma Legislature for another $10 million for next year,” Rhines says.

An OBC brochure characterizes the OBC as an effort to “connect the state's agricultural communities, research institutions, and biofuel entrepreneurs with grants and incentives that can help jump-start this all-new industry.”

The center will go a step further, however, by involving the state's farmers and ranchers in efforts to develop and demonstrate production systems that provide a consistent supply of bioenergy feedstock to the plants the state hopes entrepreneurs will one day build in the region.