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August 27, 2007 at 3:48 PM

Enzymes for ethanol, checks for free

If you know how to create enzymes that help convert wood chips into environmentally friendly fuel, the government may have some money for you.

The U.S. Department of Energy said Monday it would make some $33.8 million available to fund the development of enzymes that serve as catalysts in cellulosic biofuels production. Cellulose is what plants are made of — and breaking it up into ethanol and other fuels could help forests, prairie grasses and agricultural waste become energy producers.

Unlike corn or sugarcane ethanol, cellulosic ethanol production — developed by companies such as Iogen, which mulls building a plant in Idaho — is still in the experimental stage. A scientific breakthrough leading to widespread use of cellulose in ethanol or other fuels could not only make the Northwest a key energy player, but could also dampen the negative effects of the ongoing rush for alternative energy.

For example, cellulosic fuels would reduce the need for corn, sugar and palm oil, which also serve as food crops and have seen their prices rise with booming fuel demand.

The DOE program is part of a presidential initiative to replace 20 percent of U.S. gasoline consumption with alternative fuels by 2017. Letters of intent are due September 10, and completed applications on October 30, the agency said.

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