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Illinois State University will be part of a new national effort to develop new ways of turning switchgrass, poplar trees and other plants into fuel under a $375 million plan announced Tuesday by the Energy Department.

New research centers in Tennessee, Wisconsin and California will lead the effort, partnering with universities, national laboratories and private companies. Each of the three will receive $125 million to research new biofuel technologies over five years.

ISU will work with Great Lakes BioEnergy Research Center, which will be led by the University of Wisconsin in Madison, Wis. The other centers will be the BioEnergy Science Center, led by the Energy Department's Oak Ridge National Laboratory in Tennessee, and the Joint BioEnergy Institute, led by the Energy Department's Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory near Berkeley, Calif.

"Where energy is concerned, we simply must find ways to do more with less," said Energy Secretary Samuel Bodman. "We can develop fundamentally new sources of energy, but only by inventing radical new technology will we be successful."

The new research centers are part of the Bush administration's plan to reduce gasoline consumption by 20 percent during the next decade. The centers will study biomass plants such as switchgrass, poplar trees and corn stalks used for cellulosic ethanol.

Bodman said the research projects would bring together scientists from 18 universities, seven Energy Department national laboratories, one nonprofit organization and several private companies.

The collaborations are aimed at improving the process of developing fuel from the cellulose in plant materials such as stalks and leaves while making the process more cost-effective.

Ethanol is produced mainly from corn in the United States, but scientists have been trying to develop alternatives that use nonfood sources for energy.

"If we understand how plants are made we'll be able to develop new plants for the future that will be dedicated for energy use," said Jay Keasling, who will direct the Joint BioEnergy Institute at the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory.

Past studies have suggested that cellulosic ethanol could yield four to six times the energy expended to produce it and produce less greenhouse gas emissions than corn-based ethanol.

ISU will focus on plant-based research, said John Sedbrook, an ISU biology professor who will lead the Normal campus's arm of the energy program. In particular, the research will address how plants make sugar polymers.

"This is where they have the energy locked," he said.

Understanding how these polymers work may allow scientists find a way to best break the cell walls down, aiding the fermentation process.

Sedbrook, who earned his doctorate at University of Wisconsin-Madison, was instrumental in securing a role for ISU.

"This will be good for Illinois State, and excellent for our energy science program," he said.

That graduate-level academic program is under development, he said. It will build on the undergraduate renewable energy program, which will begin this fall.


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