Wisconsin is known more for its cow pastures than its rows of corn. But Molly Jahn believes it can be a national leader in producing ethanol and other biofuels.
"If you look simply at how much ethanol Wisconsin produced relative to other states, you'll see we're not a top ethanol producer," says Jahn, dean of the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences at the UW-Madison.
"But that is not the whole story by any means. It's not only about generating the biomass [crops like corn and soybeans]. It's about the technology required for the conversion of that biomass into energy."
Now, thanks to the U.S. Department of Energy, the UW will be playing a much larger role in converting biomass into energy.
On Tuesday, the Department of Energy announced that the UW-Madison will be one of three institutions nationally to receive grants worth $25 million a year for five years to discover more efficient ways of producing biofuels.
"This is a big thing," said Gov. Jim Doyle in a press conference Tuesday. "One hundred and twenty-five million dollars is one of the biggest research grants ever."
With the funds, the UW-Madison will establish the Great Lakes BioEnergy Research Center, where researchers will use Wisconsin natural products like timber, corn and cow manure to try to solve the energy problems of the future.
"What makes Wisconsin unique is that we have a really broad portfolio of those materials," says Randy Fortenbery, a UW-Madison agricultural economist.
Wisconsin also has a mature manufacturing economy to process those materials and make products that run on biofuels.
To win the grant competition, the college pulled together a diverse group of people dedicated to making Wisconsin a biofuels leader.
Jahn, a plant geneticist, provides the leadership. Tim Donohue, a microbiologist, is developing better techniques for converting biomass into energy. And Fortenbery is studying the economic trends of the biofuels industry.
The college also partnered with private companies, national laboratories and other universities, particularly Michigan State University.
In announcing the grant, U.S. Energy Secretary Samuel Bodman praised the scientific prowess of the UW's College of Agriculture and Life Sciences and the other winning grant applicants - the Oak Ridge National Laboratory in Tennessee and the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory in California.
"The quality of the scientific teams that they have assembled," said Bodman, "is simply as good as it gets."
Since its founding in 1889, the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences has focused on improving the production of agricultural products and revitalizing rural communities. The college's early innovations - such as a test to measure the butterfat content of milk, and a method of preserving bull semen - transformed Wisconsin into "the Dairy State" in the early 1900s.
In the 1930s, the college introduced a genetically enhanced line of corn that helped farmers quintuple corn production in two decades. Since Jahn took over in November 2005, the college has set its sights on making corn and other biomass more efficient sources of energy.
The Department of Energy grant will be used to research how to break down the cellulose in plant stalks, stems and leaves into simple sugars that can be converted into ethanol.
Donohue calls this process "the critical scientific hurdle that we have to overcome" to make ethanol an efficient fuel alternative.
Currently, most ethanol comes only from corn kernels, while the rest of the plant goes to waste. It's one reason traditional ethanol production has been criticized by environmentalists as inefficient, since it takes almost as much energy to make as it produces.
"Ethanol [from corn kernels] is barely a break-even product," says Donohue.
However, if scientists can find ways to efficiently convert cellulose to ethanol, they would be able to create fuel from a wide variety of biomass, including cornstalks, trees infected with emerald ash borers and plants like switchgrass.
But mastering the science and developing the technology will be difficult. Donohue compares getting at the energy-producing sugars in the cellulose of plants to "trying to eat a piece of corrugated cardboard."
The Great Lakes BioEnergy Research Center will tackle this problem from several angles. UW-Madison researchers are trying to breed plants with thinner cell walls or plants that contain more energy-producing sugar in an attempt to simplify the processing of biofuels.
The university has partnered with the U.S. Forest Products Lab, a Madison-based, federally funded institution whose mission is to develop more efficient ways of using wood.
Forest Products Lab program manager Susan LeVan-Green, who specializes in converting wood products into energy, says even the waste from tree trimming, trees felled by disease and underbrush have the potential to be converted into ethanol.
Private companies like C 56 Technologies, a spin-off of the Middleton-based startup Lucigen, will also work with the Great Lakes BioEnergy Research Center. The company, named for the C5 and C6 sugars that can be fermented into ethanol, is discovering enzymes to efficiently break down cellulose into simple sugars that can be converted into ethanol.
And the college continues to research better methods of converting soybeans to biodiesel, and converting animal and human waste streams into energy.
Gov. Doyle has pledged $50 million to build the facility that will house the Great Lakes BioEnergy Research Center on the UW-Madison campus, and the UW plans to raise another $50 million for the structure.
But while Jahn, Donohue and others are ecstatic to receive the grant, biofuels research in Wisconsin will not be limited to the confines of this new $100 million building.
The grant, which specifically funds research for converting cellulose into ethanol, will "not define everything that the college and the university are doing in the field of bioresearch," says Donohue.
Jahn adds that the university is determined to ensure that its research benefits Wisconsin's farmers and manufacturers.
"Rather than see ourselves as a headlong advocate for any particular approach or any particular fuel," she says, "we're looking to bring forward an integrated set of activities that do the best job promoting the best possible future for the state of Wisconsin and beyond."
Biofuels have the potential to revitalize Wisconsin's rural communities, providing farmers with crops that are valuable as fuel as well as food. The development of this technology could also benefit Wisconsin's manufacturing industry.
Jahn and her colleagues have worked with the UW's College of Engineering to develop engines that run exclusively on ethanol; Milwaukee, a major center for small engine production, could end up producing those engines.
Donohue, for his part, sees the potential to build on the College of Agriculture's 120-year history of pioneering new approaches: "When you look back 100 years from now, you will see that this college will be at the center of this."