Editor’s note: Maria Rapoza, is the vice president of science and technology development at the North Carolina Biotechnology Center. She will be moderating a panel discussion focused on alternative energy at the Council for Entrepreneurial Development’s 16th annual Biotech Conference on May 15, 2007. This column is the latest in the Entrepreneurial Spirit series produced in partnership between CED and WRAL Local Tech Wire.

RESEARCH TRIANGLE PARK, N.C. – Political, environmental, social and economic forces are aligning around the tools of biotechnology as the best hope for developing the new generation of biofuels needed to supplement traditional petroleum-based products.

That bodes well for North Carolina – a global powerhouse in biotechnology entrepreneurship that also imports 5.6 billion gallons of petroleum-based liquid fuel annually.

Despite the fact that Midwestern corn-belt states have made great progress with their first-generation technology making ethanol from starches like corn, we as a nation will not reach the kind of production capacity that is needed if we focus solely on corn as a feedstock. North Carolina is not a major corn-producing state – and we know it is not going to turn into one. Nor is it our goal to import large amounts of corn for ethanol production and drive up the cost of animal feed, harming our own large agricultural economy.

However, North Carolina’s best available resources usher this state directly into the second-generation production of bioethanol from the cellulose found in waste wood and other fast-growing plant materials such as switchgrass.

Basic biotechnology products, such as enzymes, are being perfected here that will soon be used with certain locally grown woody plant materials for geographically distributed statewide commercial-scale ethanol production.

Developing this new technology on a commercial scale will set North Carolina on a long-term transformation away from its outsized dependence on petroleum and into a more diverse energy economy with much stronger ties to agriculture and forestry. It has the potential for far greater economic benefit for all the citizens of the state.

But we need to be visionary and change the rules of the game through the tools of biotechnology if we hope to achieve the scale of production needed for these renewable fuels to become a realistic supplement to traditional fuels. North Carolina has already made a long-term investment in biotechnology, starting with the creation of my own organization, the North Carolina Biotechnology Center nearly a quarter-century ago.

Now biotechnology provides the tools to break apart the cellulose in plants and convert it
to sugars that can be fermented to ethanol. These enzymes, called cellulases, operate as molecular machines that pick up individual strands of cellulose and break off the attached sugars – glucose and cellobiose. Freed from the cellulose, the sugars can be fermented to bioethanol.

Right now there is a technology gap in industrial biotechnology and biofuels. This new technology is feasible in the laboratory, but widespread commercial use is still a few years away.

That puts North Carolina in an important strategic position, capitalizing on our historic long-term vision in biotechnology with a coordinated state plan at just the right time to turn this technology gap to our advantage.

Many other states are working in this area as well, and those efforts are to be applauded and supported. This is not a local or regional issue; it is on the national stage. However, we do believe that progress and breakthroughs will occur first on a local level, and that what we do in the states will provide models for us as a nation.

What crop will be used as the feedstock that will make North Carolina most competitive? Will it be switchgrass, genetically engineering loblolly pines, or something else? Early signs are that multiple feedstocks will be evaluated on a regional basis, and different ones will likely be selected based on regional production capacity and geography.

North Carolina will see significant benefits if we get into this game at the right place – doing the research and commercializing it through technology transfer and entrepreneurial efforts and then taking it forward to agricultural communities to ramp up production and then on to the production plants to make the biofuels. It will require significant coordination at every stage.

A strong biofuels industry can boost demand for agricultural products and create new production jobs in rural communities. Just as the sawmill used to be close to the forest, and the cotton gin close to the cotton field, these bioethanol production plants will likely end up close to where these crops are grown.

Our state effort, initiated in last year’s NC Senate bill 2051 mandating North Carolina’s strategic plan for biofuels leadership, is designed to provide clear focus and coordination for this to mature and transition into a commercial endeavor. The plan lays out nine bold strategies for the decade ahead, the first of which commits North Carolina to producing and selling 500 million gallons of biofuel within the next decade.

The politics, economics, and technology of North Carolina are in perfect alignment to move into biotechnology-based biofuel production. The Strategic Plan for Biofuels Leadership provides the opening we need to expand entrepreneurial activity in this area.

The time is ripe for North Carolinians to pull up to the gas pump and buy bioethanol made in North Carolina, from new North Carolina-grown cellulose feedstocks.