Chambliss Visits Tech to See Future of Biofuels

Georgia Senator examines new technologies to reduce oil dependence

U.S. Sen. Saxby Chambliss (R-Ga.) paid Georgia Tech a visit Aug. 8 to get a firsthand look at how Tech is working to create more efficient and affordable biofuels.

Chambliss met with some of Georgia Tech's top experts in alternative fuels and Georgia Tech President Wayne Clough to discuss new technologies designed to produce practical biofuels. In particular, the group discussed Georgia Tech's efforts to create a method for transforming the pulp of the Southern pine (a type of soft wood native to the southern U.S.) into ethanol.

The process, if properly funded and supported, could replace between 15 percent and 20 percent of Georgia's gasoline consumption, according to Dr. Sam Shelton, a lead researcher on the Southern pine project and a member of Georgia Tech's Strategic Energy Institute.

"Southern pine has huge potential for the State of Georgia," Shelton told Chambliss. "It's a great economic development opportunity."

Southern pine is readily available on tree farms in Georgia, making it a cheap material for ethanol extraction. Georgia tree farms, the top growers of Georgia pine, produce up to 18 million tons of extra wood pulp each year, according to the Georgia Forestry Commission. The wood, typically used by paper mills to produce paper goods, could instead be used to make ethanol.

The challenge lies in perfecting the process for removing the ethanol from the wood pulp. Georgia Tech researchers are working with special membranes designed to separate the ethanol and water from the pulp by catching the larger ethanol molecules.

Chambliss toured the lab working on the separation membranes guided by the project's director, Dr. Ron Rousseau.

With the right support, the researchers hope to have plants for converting Southern pine into ethanol in the next few years.