HudsonAlpha scientists are collaborating with partners in the state and around the world to explore a new industry and a new economic opportunity for farmers in South Alabama: the production of jet fuel from sugar cane.

Above, from left to right:  HudsonAlpha Executive Vice President O’Neal Smitherman, Amyris representative Paolo Avelino, Governor Bob Riley, ADECA Director Bill Johnson and Alabama State Senator Roger Bedford as they tour a facility of the SantelisaVale Group.  The Brazil-based group is the country’s second largest sugar cane crusher and leading ethanol exporter.

Governor Bob Riley announced this new project in October 2008, and was joined by John Melo, chief executive of Amyris Biotechnologies, a California-based renewable products company. Amyris hopes to build a demonstration plant in South Alabama that would use the sugar cane as feedstock to produce low-carbon renewable jet fuel.

Four varieties of sugar cane are being grown in Atmore, Alabama, and evaluated to confirm the commercial viability of the crop in South Alabama.  Planting a sugar cane nursery represents a necessary first step toward establishing this potential industry, Riley said. Amyris has demonstrated that genetic engineering of bacteria and yeast can produce organisms which convert suitable sugars, like those from sugar cane, into jet fuel.

“This project comes at a crucial time in our nation’s history when we must end our dependence on high priced oil produced by nations that don’t have America’s best interests at heart,” Riley said. “If the tests we are conducting are successful, this effort could lead to a new domestic source of fuel, offer a tremendous economic opportunity for area farmers and make Alabama a leader in the new and growing advanced biofuels industry.”

The sugar cane nursery, established on land leased to Auburn University by the Alabama Department of Corrections, is funded by a $250,000 grant from ADECA. Auburn and the Alabama Cooperative Extension System are managing the site. Auburn researchers believe the crop can be grown in areas south of Montgomery, where freezes are rare.

Earlier this year, HudsonAlpha Executive Vice President O’Neal Smitherman was part of a 45-member delegation of Alabama business representatives and university educators traveling with Governor Bob Riley to South America.  Stops were made in Colombia, Chile, Argentina and Brazil. 

Some members of the delegation explored Brazil’s successful ethanol industry. “Brazil has done a very good job of using sugar cane as a base for ethanol,” noted Smitherman.  He added that HudsonAlpha is keenly interested in addressing genomic research that has the potential of efficiently alleviating America’s dependence on foreign oil. Scientists at the HudsonAlpha Genome Sequencing Center are producing genomic data related to biofuels, funded by the U.S. Department of Energy.

To reduce dependency on foreign oil, the U.S. Air Force plans to use alternative, domestic sources of fuel to replace much of the petroleum-based fuel used currently. The air force is certifying its aircraft to operate with alternative fuels and expects their use to begin by 2011, with a goal of producing 50 percent of its fuel domestically from alternative sources by 2016.