Vonore biorefinery operating; "future looks good" say switchgrass farmers

Alison Morrow  WBIR.com

Two years ago, Van Shaver decided to convert his Lenoir City wheat and soy fields to switchgrass.

"I went to a few of the meetings and heard the presentations; did a little research," Shaver said. "It certainly has presented an opportunity to use more of the farm and to reclaim some of the farm that'd been previously let go."

He currently harvests 72 acres of the grass, but will increase to 90 acres this spring.

Until now, his crops awaited their final purpose.

Last Friday, a cutting-edge biorefinery in Vonore marked its official commencement.

The plant, our country's first demonstration-scale cellulosic ethanol biorefinery, marks a new chapter in renewable energy, putting East Tennessee at the front of the movement.

"This is a minus 80c freezer. Lab techs would tell you it'd be somewhere like Antarctica," site manager Keith Brazzell said while pointing to a freezer where micro-organisms are stored before being used to break down cellulose into sugar, which will then be fermented and distilled into ethanol.

Those micro-organisms have their work cut out for them.

The plant is set produce 250,000 gallons of ethanol a year. Scientists are able to harvest about 80 gallons from a ton of biomass, like corn cob or switchgrass.

East Tennessee farmers involved in the project are contracted at $450 per acre of switchgrass. Officials estimate that price could increase to $75 per ton once the product goes public.

"One, it's exciting to know the science works, and two, it's exciting to know what that could mean for our country," Brazzell said.

The plant's been under construction since 2008, but it wasn't until its vats filled for the first time that those involved sighed with relief.

"You're always asking yourself, 'How serious is our country?'" Brazzell said.

"As we all knew, this was a new process," Shaver said.  "Without the plant, we could grow switchgrass all day, but if there's no place to produce ethanol, then they're probably not going to need our switchgrass."

That the plant will, in fact, need switchgrass means farmers like Shaver are better set to see a return on an investment they took a chance on years ago.

"This process is going forward and the future looks good for it," Shaver said.

The plant is only dealing in corn cobs right now but it is set to change over to switchgrass later in the year.

For more information on the plant, visit Genera Energy.