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John Lamb, Published September 23 2009

Speakers promote North Dakota’s bioeconomy

North Dakota can benefit greatly from finding new and different uses for plants grown in the state, speakers said Tuesday at a conference in Fargo.

“There’s so much (economic) potential,” said Cole Gustafson, a biofuels economist at North Dakota State University.

The daylong conference – “2009 Northern Plains Economy: What Makes Sense?” – was organized by NDSU.

About 100 people, including scientists, business representatives and economic development officials, attended.

New uses include fuel, building materials and industrial applications.

Bioenergy, or energy derived from plants and other biological sources, has the potential to make a direct contribution of more than $800 million annually to the state, according to information presented at the conference.

NDSU is working with MBI, a Lansing, Mich.-based company, to develop a small pilot plant that would convert wheat straw into ethanol and cellulose nanofibers, a product that could substitute for Fiberglas and plastics.

A final report on the proposed plant is expected by the end of the year,

said Larry Leistritz, an NDSU professor involved in the project.

He and others working with the project hope a pilot plant can lead to a full-scale plant that would begin operations as soon as 2015.

A common criticism of biofuels is that they require food, particularly corn, to be converted into fuel.

Virtually all of the ethanol produced in the United States now comes from the starch in the corn.

But ethanol also can be produced from cellulose, the main component of plant cell walls.

Cellulose, the most common organic compound on Earth, is found in everything from corn stalks and wood chips to fast-growing trees and grasses.

Given that, the food-versus-fuel argument is flawed, speakers at the conference said.

“I believe we can have food and fuel,” said Bruce Dale, a professor at Michigan State University.

Gustafson said large amounts of federal grants are flowing into biofuels research.

That’s allowing researchers – and the fledging bioeconomy – to make rapid progress, he said.

Readers can reach Forum reporter Jonathan Knutson at (701) 241-5530