The possibility that the last drop of petroleum fuel will combust into oblivion in as few as 75 years worries Randy Powell. It took about 75 years to build the petroleum-based economy in place today, notes Powell. This means if the United States wants a sustainable infrastructure in place before world oil production peaks sometime in the next decade or two, it needs to get started today.

Powell, an organic chemist, former executive with Eastman Chemical Co., and consultant with BioDimensions, has been hired as the project leader for an initiative launched by the non-profit Memphis Bioworks Foundation called AgBioworks.

AgBioworks hopes to jump-start the Delta's conversion from a petro-economy to a bioeconomy.

The project will connect farmers and others who produce new raw materials with processors who make fuels, chemical products and scores of other materials from renewable resources.

The new bioeconomy “will mean new partnerships, new alliances and new ways for people to work together that we haven't seen before,” Powell said.

Delta agriculture is perfectly suited to provide the resources for this change, according to Powell. “We know there are tremendous biomass assets in this area, not only in agricultural row crops, but in woody biomass forested areas. The Delta is incredibly well-positioned to be a major player in developing biobased fuels, chemicals and other products.”

Farmers can do more than grow the feedstock for the new economy, according to Powell. “Crops are the new petroleum. The real opportunity is for the farmers to capture value from not only growing the crops but from some of the value of downstream processing into higher value products.”

One problem is that the Delta “is near the back of the pack” in the development of a bioeconomy, according to Powell. “There are other regions moving ahead more aggressively. We haven't attracted as many of those projects yet. And we don't have a university with a nationally recognized program in some of these areas to serve as a catalyst.”

A study of 83 counties along the Mississippi River in Arkansas, Tennessee, Mississippi and Missouri, conducted by AgBioworks, the Memphis Bioworks Foundation, Battelle Memorial Institute and others, will be complete early in 2009 and will provide a plan for the Delta's bioeconomy to move forward.

According to Powell, a big objective of the study is to identify and implement actions that will convince potential investors “that we do have all the biomass resources, organization, and cooperation to win projects and pull investment into the Delta, which is already happening in other parts of the country.”

The first piece of the puzzle is to find producers of feedstock, which could be a consortium of farmers who might produce crops under a contract, Powell says. “In some cases you might need a mix of biomass, so you need that constituency of farmers.”

There will also be a need for some pre-processing of biomass material. “If it's agricultural crop residue, it has to be harvested, compacted, and stored in ways that are still under development. If it's woody biomass, it has to be ground up and perhaps pre-processed. So you have to have people who know how to do that feedstock collection and pre-processing.”

Biotechnology factories will transform the biomass into chemicals and other products, energy and power. Products currently made from petroleum that can be made from biobased materials include plastics, polymers, cleaning products, automotive components, and even thousands of consumer products ranging from high fashion clothing to paints to industrial plastics.

Currently there are no models for these factories, so they have to be designed. “You also need construction firms to build the plants and investors to provide the needed capital.

“Then you have the logistics infrastructure to move the biomass from the fields to the factories and the products from the factories to the ports or the distribution point.

“It's complex and it requires a lot of skilled people in agriculture, industry, and academia. The only way to make it happen is through partnership. That's where the study will help people in our region prepare to be a part of it.”

Powell stressed that the move toward a bioeconomy “will not displace prime agricultural commodity crops in the Mid-South. We'll be able to use crop residues. We will see more winter crops, and that's going to give more returns to the farmers. But we're talking mostly about cellulosic materials.”

The project could have significant impact in rural economies, especially for fuel and energy uses, according to Powell. “The dollars we won't be sending overseas for fuels and materials will circulate around in our own communities — making us more self-sufficient, including fueling our cars, farm equipment, trucks and creating energy for our homes and businesses.”

Longer-term, the movement toward a bioeconomy could be the legacy of this generation, noted Powell. “We can be sure about one thing — in our grandchildren's lifetime, petroleum is going to run out as the predominant feedstock for fuel.”

Funding for the project comes from private and public sources, including MemphisED, a $65 million communitywide economic development initiative led by the Memphis Regional Chamber and Memphis Tomorrow.

Memphis Bioworks Foundation has also received funding from the Tennessee Department of Agriculture for developing the project in west Tennessee. The AgBioworks team is soliciting funds from Arkansas, Mississippi and Missouri. Other partners in the effort include Mississippi Technology Authority, Southern Growth Policies Board and Delta Regional Authority.