From left, Andrew Hashimoto, CTAHR professor/principal investigator; Lee Jakeway, director of energy development at Hawaiian Commercial and Sugar; Richard Ogoshi, CTAHR research agronomist and Tim Eggeman, chief technology officer of ZeaChem, Inc. inspecting energy crop trials at Hawaiian Commercial and Sugar (photo courtesy of Andrew Hashimoto)

The University of Hawaiʻi at Mānoa’s College of Tropical Agriculture and Human Resources and its project partners were awarded a four-year $6 million grant by the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s National Institute of Food and Agriculture to increase Hawaiʻi’s energy security by creating locally produced renewable energy.

UH’s project seeks to develop high-yielding biofuel feedstocks that are economically viable and sustainable, to establish advanced local biofuel production processes and to guide development of an advanced biofuel supply chain.

CTAHR faculty from the Department of Molecular Biosciences and Bioengineering, the Department of Tropical Plant and Soil Sciences and the Department of Natural Resources and Environmental Management are partnering with researchers from Oregon State and Washington State University and with ZeaChem, Hawaiian Commercial and Sugar Company, and Hawaiʻi BioEnergy LLC.

CTAHR Professor Andrew Hashimoto, the principle investigator, expects this project to provide Hawaiʻi and other tropical/subtropical regions with information vital to developing sustainable renewable energy.

“This is a timely and essential issue,” he said. “Collaboration is key, as we all bring our diverse strengths to the table for this subject of importance to Hawaiʻi, the nation and the Asia-Pacific region.”

UH’s biofuel project

The project will examine the use of fast-growing tropical grasses such as banagrass, sweet sorghum, energycane (a relative of sugarcane) and Napiergrass–pearl millet crosses for biofuel production, including testing and modifying harvesting and storage techniques for the feedstock grasses and optimizing energy yields.

It will also develop ways to assess the sustainability of renewable energy production in Hawaiʻi, focusing on investigating the development of a rural-based decentralized pre-processing system.

Hawaiʻi presently meets more than 90 percent of its energy requirements through the use of imported fossil fuels and, despite almost non-existent heating needs, has the nation’s highest energy costs. According to Hawaiʻi Energy Statistics, between $3.4 and 5.4 billion was spent annually in the state for fossil fuel between 2005 and 2009. This high price burden is matched by the equally problematic lack of fuel security inherent in such overwhelming dependence upon outside sources.

Not only the state’s own energy needs are at stake, the U.S. Navy has a vital interest in the development of biofuels that can be produced locally to meet its transportation needs. The Navy has unveiled its Great Green Fleet Initiative, which aims to use 50 percent renewable energy by 2020 for its ships and ground transport. This will create a very important market for locally produced biofuels.

From a University of Hawaiʻi at Mānoa news release.

The drive for innovations in biofuels and biobased products

CTAHR’s grant was part of a $41 million investment that will drive more efficient biofuels production and feedstock improvements. The U.S. Departments of Agriculture and Energy announced on July 25 that grants were awarded to 13 projects nationwide.

“If we want to develop affordable alternatives for oil and gasoline that will help reduce our dependence on foreign oil, we need investments like these projects to spur innovation in bioenergy,” said Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack in a U.S. Department of Agriculture release announcing the grants.

The Energy Department’s video, Biofuels 101, highlights how technological advances are increasing biofuel efficiency and reducing production costs.