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What will be the next oil?

Interim Dean William F. Tracy. Photo by Wolfgang Hoffmann BS’75 MS’79

That’s a frequent question raised about the future of energy—and not a surprising one considering the dominant role that that single fuel source has played in filling our energy needs.

While we still are searching for the answers to our energy future, one thing seems clear—there probably won’t be one next big thing, one dominant fuel source that will take the place of oil.

Which brings me to the topic of this issue: bioenergy. In 2007 CALS was awarded an initial $125 million from DOE—the largest federal grant ever received by CALS—to come up with new ways of drawing energy from plants. And so we embarked on a scientific endeavor that ranks as one of humankind’s biggest when we consider what we might gain: more ways to free ourselves from dependency on fossil fuels.

While some may have hoped that by this point we’d be tanking up with cellulosic ethanol, anyone familiar with the challenges recognized that after three and a half years, we’d just be warming up.

In fact, we’ve done that and more. As the stories in this issue show—and as an illustration on page 20 offers at a glance—Tim Donohue and his colleagues at the Great Lakes Bioenergy Research Center (GLBRC) have built a research pipeline that already has produced some promising discoveries and is poised to deliver more.

Hundreds of scientists are blazing trails in everything from sustainability—learning how biofuels will affect the environment in the long run—to fundamental research about cell wall growth and interactions with microbes. The GLBRC has strengthened connections with institutions across campus—for example, with the College of Engineering, where researchers are engine-testing biofuels—and across Lake Michigan, working in close cooperation with our partners at Michigan State University. Beyond college campuses, the discoveries emerging from these efforts are likely to benefit farmers, businesses and the overall economy in the entire state and region.

We do not yet know the exact role biofuel will play in the mix of renewable sources that will comprise our energy future. Time and more discovery will tell. We do know that the GLBRC is off to a promising start.