At a time when the Buckeye state is trying to dig out of the recession and re-engineer its economy to boost job creation, the Ohio Agricultural Research and Development Center (OARDC) is collaborating with forward-thinking industry to do just that.
The Wooster center — part of Ohio State University’s College of Food, Agricultural, and Environmental Sciences — is looking beyond the classroom and lab to commercialize technology that can lead to startup companies or attract businesses to invest and build their workforces right here in Ohio.
This initiative has given birth to BioHio Research Park, a first-in-the-state business and technology center whose aim is to link OARDC scientists with business and industry partners interested in the growing and promising field of agricultural biosciences — which includes high-impact areas such as renewable energy and materials, food safety, and environmental remediation.
“BioHio is a truly unique asset,” said Rod Crider, president of the Wayne Economic Development Council, a key partner of OARDC in this endeavor. “It brings economy-shifting potential to our county and our region. We are truly fortunate to have OARDC here, as it is demonstrating how R&D activity can be leveraged to drive economic growth, job creation and the generation of income.”
The BioHio concept went from paper to reality during 2010, creating 21 jobs and generating important economic activity in the Wooster area by attracting more than $8 million in federal and state funds. The park’s main 95-acre site (adjacent to the OARDC campus) was enhanced with an improved access road, job-ready site preparation and utilities thanks to a $3.1 million grant from the Ohio Department of Development and $3.4 million in matching funds from utilities and the city of Wooster. Meanwhile, the campus’s Pounden Hall was renovated to provide space for businesses through a $744,000 U.S. Department of Commerce grant and $1.2 million in local matches.
Also in 2010, BioHio attracted its first tenant, Cleveland-based quasar energy group. The renewable energy company — which had previously established a lab on the OARDC campus to collaborate with researchers on biomass conversion technologies — set up its engineering office in Pounden Hall and built its flagship anaerobic digester on the park’s main site.
Today, the modern biogas plant — which can process 550,000 gallons of agricultural and food-processing waste, keeping it from landfills and saving businesses disposal fees — is producing 600 kW of electricity, and it has the potential to supply up to one-half of the OARDC campus’s energy needs. More importantly, the quasar-OARDC partnership has led to the creation and retention of 110 jobs in Ohio alone and the construction of three additional digesters throughout Ohio. Nine new projects are also scheduled for construction across the state in 2011.
“By collaborating with OARDC we have gained in one year the credibility that may have taken us 10 years to gain on our own,” said quasar President Mel Kurtz. “This collaboration should result in thousands of jobs in Ohio. Most recently, in 2011, the backlog of work that we have will generate 1,000 jobs. It’s hard to imagine trying to do what we are doing without this collaboration.”
The public-private partnership between OARDC and quasar is expected to be a key step in building a clean energy industry in the Buckeye state with significant economic and environmental benefits: one estimate shows Ohio has enough biomass resources to run 6,447 farm-scale and industrial-scale biogas plants. OARDC scientists are leading the way in researching biogas plants that will be viable for small farms, as well as for large farms and industry.
Last year, for example, OARDC and quasar received a $2 million Third Frontier grant to commercialize a new, patent-pending system that can generate biogas from both liquid and solid organic wastes, doubling biogas production This system can use biomass sources such as yard trimmings and crop residue to make energy, which current anaerobic digesters can’t do; reuse the liquid effluent coming out of the digester, eliminating the need to manage it; and produce a natural fertilizer from the solid leftovers.
Another aspect of the public-private partnerships promoted by BioHio Research Park is workforce training. The Ohio State University Agricultural Technical Institute (ATI), which is located next door to OARDC, has worked together with quasar to develop renewable energy curriculum. ATI students are also doing internships at quasar. One of them, Cleveland native Liz Szado, was even offered a full-time job by quasar as a lab technician after graduating last year.
“I think this is a great opportunity,” said Szado, who began doing “all the dirty work of feeding the digester” but quickly learned from OARDC graduate students how to run the machines and do testing. “You can’t beat taking waste and turning it into energy and fuel. This is the leading edge of technology right now.”