On more than one occasion this fall, a group of researchers streamed out of the Microbial Sciences Building, garbage bags flapping in the breeze, each a different degree of overqualified for this work.
They spread out, filled their bags with fresh, green leaves and stored up more than supplies for the winter. More than 200 bags of leaves are zip-locked and stored in a freezer for the long winter.
This spring, the duty passes on to a lone undergraduate, whose responsibility will be to go out on leaf-hunts three times a week.
The point of all this? The researchers are collecting material for the legions of six-legged silent crawlers residing at the Currie lab, leaf-cutter ants the university, state and nation have staked some hope in.
Tucked away in a sealed room off the main lab, the ants live in more than a dozen plastic boxes, stacked neatly on the shelves.
University of Wisconsin researcher Cameron Currie and his colleagues have been studying them all year, trying to understand their system of natural farming, whereby they cultivate fungus to eat, grown on the infamous leaf shreds they harvest.
Currie and others hope these tiny bugs and their fungus will help unlock answers to fight a major challenge for the United States: energy.
Anthills of discovery
Currie, backed by the Great Lakes Bioenergy Research Center, is doing research aimed to reduce the nation’s reliance on fossil fuels for transportation.
Funded by the U.S. Department of Energy, the GLBRC is focusing its exploration efforts on deriving ethanol — a renewable fuel — from different forms of biomass. Although corn ethanol has become a common source, the research here focuses on deriving ethanol from other parts of plants.
Basically, the sugary seeds of corn used to derive corn ethanol are easy to break down but ultimately inefficient, since most of the mass of the corn plant is discarded. Currie’s lab is watching how the ants break down the cellulose molecules in their leafy matter in hopes of improving ethanol-making methods.
“The ants have been doing bioenergy for tens of millions of years, and so we’re studying the system to understand the breakdown of plant biomass in natural systems,” Currie said.
While scientists have long known how to make ethanol from other kinds of plant matter, the process is long and inefficient. That’s where the ants march in.
“They’ve evolved to be very efficient in many different aspects of their biology, and so it’s very likely that they’ve also evolved to be more efficient in breaking down cellulose, so that’s what we’re studying,” Currie said.
According to Sara Krauskopf, education and outreach co-director for the GLBRC, at this point, bioenergy is the best solution to reducing American dependence on fossil transportation fuels.
“At this point in time, it really has to be a liquid, and we don’t have the battery power to really bottle solar or other kinds of energy for transportation fuels,” Krauskopf said. “Also, bioenergy is local, as a good alternative to gasoline.”
Ethanol has the added promise of short-term accessibility for Americans, Krauskopf said, because it can be used in current vehicles and pumps, easing the inconvenience and market pressure against transition.
Although she says in her line of work she rarely goes out to tell people “ethanol is the answer,” Krauskopf has found herself debunking some myths and misconceptions along the way. For example, she is often asked how burning ethanol is any cleaner than burning gas if both release carbon dioxide.
“People don’t understand when you burn fossil fuels, you release ancient carbon dioxide … when you burn ethanol, you release younger carbon dioxide that can get put back into the cycle,” Krauskopf said.
A different kind of burning
Across campus from the room full of ants, the Charter Street coal plant looms, soot-smudged and gray.
But as the statewide push for alternative energy increases, Gov. Jim Doyle recently announced that, by 2012, he aims to have it burning biomass like switchgrass and wood waste instead of its standard tons of coal.
“We must move away from our dependence on coal,” Doyle said in a statement announcing the plans this February. “This new project will help build the biomass market in Wisconsin, keep the money we spend on energy in the local economy and create green jobs in the area.”
Doyle has set a state goal to produce 25 percent of its energy from renewable sources by 2025. This project is aimed to be just the first drop in the glass.
According to Brian Driscoll, community relations director for Wisconsin’s Office of Energy Independence, the project is far from a done deal.
“This is very preliminary, this is a pilot. There are really less than a handful of units like this in the country,” Driscoll said. “A lot of what we are doing is experimenting and discovering the answers for how we can implement this for the first time on a pilot level.”
Driscoll said one of the challenges facing planners is coordinating Wisconsin departments to build the “biomass market.”
He said the plant could utilize anything from wood left over from furniture builders to biomass sustainably harvested from Wisconsin’s forests, right down to switchgrass grown in Dane County.
“It’s not a monoculture farmer doing something like that, but it’s going to be a diverse group of source and it’s going to take lot of work to get there,” Driscoll said.
He added Doyle aims to use the Charter Street project as a model for expansion.
“It’s playing off of the Wisconsin Idea. You’re coming up with these research ideas at the university level, implementing them at that level, and then we’re hoping do duplicate them at other UW System schools,” he said.
The ‘Silicon Valley of Bioenergy’
New exploration of scientific research and industrial development isn’t limited to the state of Wisconsin, let alone these two projects in Madison. But some onlookers have noted the state is making a move to become a leader in bioenergy.
Brett Hulsey, a Dane County supervisor and president of Better Environmental Solutions, said bioenergy sits at the forefront of Wisconsin’s alternative energy plans. Sixty-seven percent of the state’s renewable energy already comes from biomass, he said, while wind and solar power combined make up less than 1 percent.
He said the research at the GLBRC is important, particularly their efforts to make cellulosic ethanol more affordable.
“Most of these processes come in anywhere form $3 to $4 a gallon, so it’s difficult to compete with gas,” Hulsey said.
With 70 percent of Wisconsin’s electricity currently coming from coal, Hulsey said it is one of the most coal-dependent states in the nation.
“We spend about $25 billion in energy, most of which leaves the state,” Hulsey said. “If we can promote biomass, we can let our energy dollars go to our farmers, which keeps more money in the state.”
Challenges for bioenergy abound, with many likely to pop up as preliminary research and development continues.
With Wisconsin leading the way, Hulsey is not alone in hoping that the state can develop a flair for alternative energy the way Northern California dominates high-tech business, making the Badger State the new “Silicon Valley of Bioenergy.”