Oklahomans spread the word about state's future in biofuels

Published: Thursday, May 21, 2009 7:00 am

The Journal Record

OKLAHOMA CITY - Steve Rhines had been at the exhibition hall of the BIO 2009 conference in Atlanta for only a few minutes before he started fielding questions about Oklahoma's switchgrass.

"They're interested in what we're doing here and the reputation that Oklahoma is growing in regard to biofuels," said Rhines, vice president of the Ardmore-based Noble Foundation.

The Biotechnology Industry Organization (BIO) conference is one of the world's largest networking events for the industry, providing an opportunity to meet potential business partners, clients and investors. About 20,000 people were expected to attend this year, a slight downturn because of the economy.

More than 60 Oklahomans went to the weeklong event, said i2E Inc. spokesman Jim Stafford, who also attended. The contingent is a mix of economic development officers, researchers and entrepreneurs from across the state, including representatives of the state Commerce Department and local chambers of commerce.

Rhines said he received a lot of questions about the Noble Foundation's work with ag producers near Ardmore to plant small plots of switchgrass and a 1,000-acre project in the Panhandle last year. Rhines called the latter the world's first large-scale test production of a crop specifically as a biofuel source.

The Noble Foundation originally focused on switchgrass because it is an excellent feed source for livestock in the spring and therefore a potential cost savings for ag producers, Rhines said. The crop grows naturally throughout many areas of Oklahoma and the U.S.

Rhines credited the Oklahoma Bioenergy Center for facilitating partnerships to allow the project to explore switchgrass's potential as biofuel after the initial grazing period, which would increase the crop's value dramatically.

"We're refining the model, which would be really important for Oklahoma and stocker production throughout the Southeast," he said. "But one of our greatest concerns is how long it would take to transition multi-generational livestock production into a biofuels economy. It's not going to happen overnight.

"We were a little concerned going into this that the topic of biofuels might be kind of suffering, because you don't see it in the press every day anymore," Rhines said. "But it appears that to relevant audiences, it's still very much in the mind's eye."

Rhines said BIO conference attendees have been interested in the Oklahoma project's progress and how they might be able to move in that direction by securing funds and partners of their own. For example, the Noble Foundation has partnerships with Abengoa, a company that is building a cellulosic biofuels refinery in southwestern Kansas, and with Idaho National Laboratory, which is focused on feedstock logistics.

"We're also seeing a lot of activity by those in the industry who now understand what we're trying to achieve," he said. "We're seeing some of these players starting to come together as we begin to focus on how we're going to leverage the 1,000 acres and compete on a nationwide basis."

Back to top