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USDA's Clean Energy Innovations at Albany's Regional Center

 The U.S. Department of Agriculture's Western Regional Research Center (WRRC), based in Albany, is the area's best-kept secret in the area of clean energy. The WRRC is one of four research centers in the country that are part of the Agricultural Research Service, the chief in-house research agency of the USDA.

A major employer in the Green Corridor, the WRRC has a workforce of 240 people. Of those, 79 hold PhDs in the fields of chemistry, genetics, biology, engineering, entomology, pathology and toxicology.  One quarter of the employees work in clean energy research.

While the WRRC’s main focus is food safety, it also develops industrial products from renewable resources.  Bill Orts leads the Bioproduct Chemistry and Engineering Research Unit where he oversees the development of biofuel and bioproduct technology. 

"Basically, we are working to capture as much value as possible from agricultural materials by turning them into biofuels and other bioproducts," Orts said. 

Ethanol is a common example of fuel derived from agricultural materials (corn sugar), but Orts' team is moving beyond.  For nine years, Orts and the WRRC have been working to extract ethanol from wood and grass, materials that are much more difficult to break down but have a reduced impact on the environment.

Orts is also working to create other bioproducts such as biodegradable plastic bottles and rice-based paper.  His team is additionally developing technology to turn municipal waste (discarded paper, food scraps and plastics) into bioenergy like fuel and electricity.

Along with pioneering energy efficiency research for public use, the WRRC team is also making changes to its own energy footprint.

Chris Carter, an administrator in the office of Center Director Howard Zhang, plans to have LED, or light-emitting diode lighting installed in the Center's five greenhouses in a pilot program this fall that may serve as a model for USDA greenhouses across the country.  The Center's energy-intensive high pressure sodium bulbs will be replaced by longer-lasting Lumigrow lights that use up to 50% less energy.  Carter hopes that the energy upgrade will reduce the Center's environmental impact and benefit the wheat, potatoes and other crops grown in the greenhouses.

This effort is part of an overall energy audit of WRRC’s approximately 350,000 square foot facility built in 1939.  Retrofitting efforts could lead to roughly 30% in energy use reduction that would net about $600,000 in savings per year.

Dave Nicholson heads the Center’s Office of Technology Transfer (OTT).  He oversees a team of patent attorneys and others working to manage the labs' intellectual property, patents and inventions. 

The Office of Technology Transfer brings research technology into the “real world” by partnering with corporate entities.  The OTT provides the scientific know-how and technical assistance, while companies contribute manufacturing and marketing of products. 

"The last thing we want is for our research to stay in the lab," Nicholson said.  "We want to use it to create new products, new jobs, and economic development."  Nicholson is glad to be part of the East Bay Green Corridor community, wants the lab to have a more visible presence in the region and emphasizes that ARS is "always looking for new partners."


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