Vilsack tours Virent's BioForming demonstration facility in Wis.

By Erin Voegele | April 23, 2012

Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack toured Wisconsin-based Virent Inc. on April 18, where he viewed the company’s technology to produce biobased products, fuels and chemicals. The company has successfully produced biobased gasoline and jet fuel from woody biomass, as well as biobased paraxylene (PX), which can be used to produce bioplastics.

During his visit, Vilsack toured the company’s demonstration facility to learn more about its BioForming process, which converts biomass feedstocks into biobased products. According to information released by the USDA, Virent serves as an example of how manufacturing biobased products is creating jobs across the nation while helping to reduce our country’s reliance on foreign oil.

Virent is currently working to deploy its first commercial-scale plant to produce chemicals and fuels. The company notes the project will help support rural economic development, create new jobs and provide markets for farm commodities. “Biorefineries have the potential to transform the economic landscape of rural America—from corn stover in Wisconsin, Iowa and Michigan, to miscanthus in Georgia, to woody biomass in places as diverse as Oregon and Louisiana,” said Lee Edwards, Virent’s president and CEO.

The company has a history of USDA support. In 2007, the department’s Biomass Research and Development Initiative provided $2 million in funding for research into the production of chemicals from crude glycerin feedstock. That grant is credited with helping to launch the company’s biochemical production program.

“Technologies like Virent’s mean that plentiful, plant-derived sugars have the potential to compete with petroleum as a source of energy,” Edwards said. “Direct replacement, drop-in products generated from biomass are sustainable alternatives to petroleum, and leveraging our unmatched agricultural resources to promote energy security and rural economic growth.”

During the tour, Edwards and Vilsack discussed the potential of biobased products to offset the use of petroleum. “Promoting production of biofuels and embracing biobased products have helped reduce dependence on foreign oil to less than 50 percent and will continue to help reduce our reliance for years to come," said Vilsack. "We should rely on innovative companies and the productivity of American farmers and ranchers to produce our household items and power our cars and trucks—not foreign oil. If we are able to produce more energy here at home and build a manufacturing economy producing biobased goods, we'll generate middle-class jobs and strengthen our economy in the long run…USDA and the Obama administration are working with private industry to strengthen and transition to a bioeconomy, with firms like Virent promoting biobased products, and with the bioenergy sector pursuing an 'all-of-the-above' energy strategy to promote American-produced renewable energy coupled with oil production.”