Biofuel Research Taking Center Stage

I sit in the middle of the San Joaquin Valley, a bountiful region that has been referred to as the world's salad bowl - and for good reason.

Farmers here produce $20 billion worth of food and fiber annually that is shipped worldwide. Growers in Central California are efficient, productive, technologically advanced and raise a myriad of crops. Which leads me to wonder: could they become leaders in biofuel development too?

The United States and Brazil dominate biofuel production, led by ethanol. In 2009, the U.S. produced half of the world's supply of ethanol, most of it from corn, according to this report that UC Berkeley helped develop.

More production is likely as research into biofuel continues. Algae - pond scum and easily grown - shows promising potential. UC Merced, 60 miles from my desk in Fresno, is conducting cutting-edge research into algae, and a water-treatment company has inked a deal to distribute algae-extraction systems to its customers.

Algae research already is creating jobs, according to the study that UC Berkeley participated in. Solazyme, a biotech firm near San Francisco, has been hiring algae researchers at the rate of one per week. But other types of fuel are being tested as well. Among them are jatropha, switchgrass , sorghum (which is being tested in Hanford), canola and Miscanthus.

President Obama, trying to wean the nation off oil, is offering $30 million over the next three or four years for biofuel research, and the Berkeley study talks about growth in the industry.

"As start-ups mature and commercialize their technologies, the industry will bring on workers for a full range of production needs. That diverse workforce will range from farmers to....molecular engineers."

Farmers will be needed to grow the fuel sources, whatever they may be. The Southeast and Midwest are promising centers of biofuel, but some of the research is occurring in California, according to this report out of Parlier.

I wonder if the Valley's farmers - who are among the most entrepreneurial in the world - can perhaps help create a new cash crop.

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