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Imagine if fields of tropical grass in Waimānalo, which grows like weeds year-round, could be turned into electricity, jet fuel or even gasoline for automobiles. The University of Hawaiʻi at Mānoa’s College of Tropical Agriculture and Human Resources is in the process of determining if that dream could become a reality.

The college is looking into locally produced, renewable energy that would end Hawaiʻi’s severe dependence on foreign oil and serve as a model to the world.

“When people ask me is it economically viable at this point, I say we don’t have the answers yet,” said Professor Andrew Hashimoto of CTAHR. “That’s why we do the research.”

CTAHR and its project partners have been awarded a four-year, $6 million federal grant for the research. This grant is part of a $41 million investment for 13 projects nationwide. The goal is to spur innovation in bio energy.

“There is a big emphasis on the sustainability,” said Hashimoto. “How much input? What’s the impact on carbon by these processes? What’s the impact on the environment? What’s the impact on the communities that sustain these processes? It’s a very comprehensive project.”

It starts with the fast growing tropical grass and a lot of questions.

“It’s not so much finding the best crop but really which crops do the best in the different environments,” said Hashimoto. “And it’s not only yield but how much input is required like water, fertilizer, pest control and things like that.”

Researchers are also looking into the harvesting, pre-processing and the conversion of the grass or biomass into fuel like diesel and gasoline.

“We need to convert biomass from a solid form to something we can use in our everyday life,” said Professor Scott Turn of the Hawaiʻi Natural Energy Institute.

A research reactor operated by HNEI converts the biomass into carbon monoxide and hydrogen that can be made to produce electricity or be converted into liquid fuel. It is one of the many conversion methods being examined. No stone is being left unturned as UH researchers look into every aspect of biofuel and its future in Hawaiʻi.

“Getting off of petroleum is very important for us,” said Turn. “For energy security, for economic development and to help put some of our agriculture lands back into production.”

“It’s really going to come down to the economics and basically, the sustainability,” said Hashimoto. “Are you benefiting the environment and the community as well as economically?”

Those are among the questions the UH researchers hope to have answered in the next two to four years.

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