The Great Experiment Conference Highlights Epic Academic Explorations
On March 13-14, 2017, the University of Tennessee Institute of Agriculture (UTIA) hosted The Great Experiment conference to examine a decade of what became a model of academic exploration and success.
Soaring oil prices and concerns regarding the nation's dependency on foreign oil prompted UTIA researchers to consider an agricultural solution. The Great Experiment began in 2004 with UTIA specialists from multiple disciplines uniting to develop the science of converting switchgrass, a native warm-season perennial, for ethanol production.
With a $980,000 grant from the federal government, followed by a $70 million investment by the State of Tennessee, The Great Experiment began and over a decade of biofuels science was launched. A total of 5,192 acres of this contracted bioenergy crop was grown on 66 farms in Tennessee.
The Great Experiment conference captured the scope of this science that envelops the entire supply chain: from growing the feedstock to converting the feedstock into fuel.
"The world was watching and what they saw was a team approach to a biofuels initiative that was generated to help provide agricultural solutions to a real-world problem," said Ken Goddard, Extension specialist.
UT Extension and AgResearch scientists were sought out to give guidance and collaborations in biofuels programming from numerous groups such as Chevron Corporation, Department of Energy, Oak Ridge National Laboratory, United States Department of Agriculture, a Chinese delegation, and many others.
The conference featured the switchgrass biofuels exploration; highlighted the cooperation between farmers, Extension and AgResearch; and discussed the growing bioeconomy.
The bioeconomy is likely to continue in relevance as significant consumer demand is driving the market. For example, packaging materials and plastics are becoming increasingly mixed with biobased composites or replaced entirely by plant-based materials.
"A total of 72 external industrial and institutional partners were involved in this project: When you start looking at this as a model, that's very unique in the academic world, and I think that's what sets this initiative apart and made it so successful over the years," said Sam Jackson, vice president of business development for Genera Energy.
Output from the conference resulted in a digital repository of presentations, videos, pictures, collected data and links to published material, capturing the breadth of what was learned during the decade-long experiment and furthering the goal of establishing a thriving and sustainable bioeconomy.