Researchers at RTI International will receive up to $2 million from the U.S. Department of Energy for a new biofuels project that its backers believe could be a breakthrough on multiple fronts in developing alternative fuels.

Working with North Carolina State University and Utah University, the RTI research team aims to further refine technology that turns biomass into ethanol.

NCSU and Utah University along with the Golden LEAF Foundation of North Carolina are providing an additional $1.1 million for the project, according to Raghubir Gupta, director of the Center for Energy Technology at RTI.

“We believe we can produce ethanol cleaner, more simply, faster and in an environmentally friendly process,” Gupta said in an interview with Local Tech Wire. “We don’t produce much waste.”

The project team’s technology also could produce ethanol much more cheaply.

“We believe we can produce ethanol for $1 a gallon,” Gupta said, noting that current processes cost between $2 and $3 per gallon.

The concept of gasification of the biomass and separation into various end products has already been proved in a lab environment through a reactor or what RTI calls a “therminator.” Utah researchers developed the gasification process.

According to the RTI proposal, the technology turns biomass into “syngas” which is then separated, or cleaned up, with one result being ethanol. But much work remains to be done.

“Over the next 18 to 24 months we hope to develop a commercially viable process that can be licensed to the private sector,” Gupta added.

Unlike ethanol based on food products like corn, the RTI-led project looks to develop a reactor and a separation process to turn waste materials into so-called cellulosic ethanol.

“We were very careful not to use food products,” said Gupta, noting that use of corn and other staples has led to price pressures on commodities and has triggered growing protests around the world.

Should the process prove viable outside of the lab, the researchers say it could be used to harvest anything from pine needles to pig waste.

David Myers, vice president of engineering and technology at RTI, also noted that the technology takes advantage of abundant basic resources in North Carolina.

“We are not blessed with a lot of corn,” he said, “but we are blessed with a lot of pine trees.”

The state also is home to millions of hogs, and treatment of hog waste has been a headache for decades.

Myers called the DOE funding the “first victory” for the recently created Research Triangle Energy Consortium, or RTEC. It includes Duke, UNC-Chapel Hill and N.C. State as well as RTI. NCSU and RTI began working on the DOE proposal even before RTEC was formally announced.

The DOE funds were awarded based on a proposal submitted by RTI. Senators Elizabeth Dole and Richard Burr announced the funding on Tuesday.

“It is critical to our security that we reduce dependence on foreign energy sources, and it is critical to our environment that we have clean energy sources,” Dole said in a statement. “I am proud that innovative work is being done in North Carolina to develop solutions to these significant challenges facing our nation.”

Added Burr: “North Carolina’s budding renewable fuels industry is quickly gaining national attention because of important projects like this one. I applaud RTI and N.C. State for working to grow North Carolina’s economy and reduce our dependence on foreign energy sources.”