Biofuel by cloning. The concept is a little hard to wrap your mind around.

But ArborGen, the Summerville-based forest research lab, is joining Clemson University in "green" research to come up with a profitable way to make a fuel from plants grown in South Carolina that take the place of some oil and gas use. Part of ArborGen's role will be to provide loblolly pine, eucalyptus, sweetgum and poplar for a process that extracts an unusual carbon sugar that is a key to producing ethanol.

The trees supplying the wood will be a mix of traditional stands and "purpose grown" varieties such as hybrids and pollinated seedlings. Some will be a little more advanced than that -- genetically engineered duplicates of a single tree.

The wood might be critical to making the process commercially viable because trees can be harvested year-round. So far, the research has focused on switch grass, a native product that must be harvested in season and stored. The difference might be pennies per gallon in the eventual cost of making the fuel, but they are important pennies.

Institute "bench chemistry" research suggests the fuel now can be manufactured for $2.30 to $2.60 per gallon. The goal is to get that cost down to $2 per gallon or less -- the point at which it might be worth investing in.

"The hope is to stimulate (private company) manufacturing of biomass fuels in South Carolina," said Karl Kelly, corporate operations director of the Clemson University Restoration Institute. Those companies could be a second wind for the flagging agriculture economy in the state, as well as a source of other "green" energy jobs. The institute is located in North Charleston.

Developing a biomass industry along major transportation corridors in South Carolina "is going to be really important for rural area development and the preservation of forests," said Maude Hinchee, ArborGen chief technology officer, who predicted commercial outlets for the fuel could be operating within the next five years.

The biofuel project is being paid for with federal stimulus money, among other federal, corporate and private funds.

The institute and the company announced the collaboration Thursday at a bioenergy summit at the Clemson Pee Dee Research and Education Center in Florence. They will jointly research plant genetics and development, equipment engineering, material handling and pretreatment, as well as conduct field trials.

They will work with researchers from the Savannah River National Laboratory and South Carolina State University, as well as commercial partners such as Fagan Engineering, Dyadic International and the Spinx Co. That collaboration of partners helps win grants because a research effort running from the plant in the ground to the fuel tank makes commercial production more feasible, Hinchee said.

Genetically engineered trees are controversial among some environmental groups, who say the planting could displace native grown species. But engineered plants have been part of agriculture for years, used in crops such as corn, cotton and soybeans.

ArborGen, an offshoot of research departments at Westvaco and other timber companies, grows the trees to see if they can be a commercially viable source of nursery and fiber products, as well as biofuel.

"They can help us understand what's in the wood," Kelly said.

Reach Bo Petersen at 937-5744 or bpetersen@postandcourier.com.