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April 12, 2007


ConocoPhillips Funds Biofuels Research

Iowa State program aims to develop cost-effective technologies for producing biofuels

Glenn Hess

ConocoPhillips will fund an eight-year, $22.5 million research program at Iowa State University to develop new technologies for producing biofuels from fibrous biomass such as the stalks and leaves of corn plants and switch grass.

The Houston-based oil company, the third largest in the U.S., will make an initial $1.5 million grant in 2007 to support Iowa State researchers, followed by annual grants of $3 million for seven years.

"We believe the key to a secure energy future is the efficient and effective use of a diverse mix of energy sources," says ConocoPhillips CEO James J. Mulva. "ConocoPhillips is developing long-term relationships with respected academic institutions such as Iowa State to research extensions of traditional energy sources that ultimately will benefit consumers."

In the U.S., most ethanol is made from corn starch, and most biodiesel is made from soybean oil. Ethanol can be produced from other plant materials, but the technology to do so at a competitive price and in large quantities does not yet exist.

At Iowa State, ConocoPhillips will fund studies to better understand environmental sustainability and rural economies. The research portfolio will emphasize crop improvement and production, the harvesting and transportation of biomass, and the impacts of biofuels on economic policy and rural sociology.

"The emerging consensus is that a very big part of increasing the nation's energy security will be producing fuels from plants," says Iowa State President Gregory Geoffroy. "Iowa State scientists and engineers are well-positioned to put science to work advancing biofuels technologies."

Robert C. Brown, director of Iowa State's Office of Biorenewables Programs, says ConocoPhillips is especially interested in converting biomass to fuel through fast pyrolysis, a process that uses heat in the absence of oxygen to decompose biomass into a liquid product that can be used as heating oil or converted into transportation fuel at petroleum refineries.

The details of specific projects have yet to be determined, Brown says, but he estimates the research program during its first year will involve 10 faculty members plus graduate students; more researchers will be added in subsequent years.

Last month, ConocoPhillips gave its support to the Colorado Center for Biorefining & Biofuels, a joint venture between businesses and the newly formed Colorado Renewable Energy Collaboratory, which links the University of Colorado, Boulder; the Colorado School of Mines; Colorado State University; and the National Renewable Energy Laboratory (C&EN, March 19, page 12).

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