A $150,000 grant from the Department of Energy may help a Richland company find a way to spin straw into precious biofuels -- not just to save money on gas and diesel but to improve the environment and reduce the country's dependence on foreign oil.
InnovaTek received word this week it was one of 67 small businesses nationwide to receive one of the DOE innovative research and technology grants awarded as part of National Small Business Week.
Patricia Irving, founder, president and CEO of InnovaTek, plans to use the $150,000 to help pay for research into making the process of converting straw into biofuels more economical.
In the Mid-Columbia, straw -- dried wheat stalks -- is left behind in the fields after the grain is harvested. Farmers sometimes bale it like hay and sell it. But more often they either plow it back into the soil or burn it.
Researchers at InnovaTek are looking at straw as a raw material. It already can be processed into biofuels, but it's expensive.
"The technology to be developed using this funding will help make it economically feasible to replace fossil fuels with renewable fuels for transportation by reducing capital and operating costs of the production facility," Irving said.
"This is needed so that the cost of 'green' gasoline will be competitive with petroleum fuels. If it's not a product that can be affordable by the general population, the product is unlikely to become competitive in the marketplace," she said.
Reduced use of fossil fuels will improve environmental conditions, especially in large population areas, she said.
And, she said, "Achieving independence from foreign oil, and thereby making the country less vulnerable to political instability in the oil producing regions of the Middle East, is perhaps our foremost energy issue."
In addition to conducting its own research, InnovaTek has asked Washington State University Tri-Cities to collaborate on the project. Money from the grant will pay researchers in the Bioproducts, Sciences and Engineering Laboratory at the Richland campus.
The grants are part of the federal government's Small Business Innovation Research program. All federal agencies with a research budget are required to use part of it to promote small business.
The 67 small businesses selected for the DOE grants will be eligible to compete later for a second phase of the program for awards up to $1 million over two years.