Thursday, August 03, 2006

US DOE to Invest $250 Million in New Biofuels Research Centers

The US Department of Energy (DOE) will spend $250 million to establish and operate two new Bioenergy Research Centers to accelerate basic research on the development of cellulosic ethanol and other biofuels from biomass, including biodiesel, biofuels for aviation, and biologically based hydrogen and other fuels from sunlight.

The centers’ mission will be to conduct systems biology research on microbes and plants. A major focus will be on understanding how to reengineer biological processes for more efficient conversion of plant fiber, or cellulose, into ethanol, a substitute for gasoline.

Research Centers will address scientific problems that are inherently interdisciplinary and will require scientific expertise and technological capabilities that span the physical and biological sciences, including genomics, microbial and plant biology, analytical chemistry, computational biology and bioinformatics, and engineering.

Examples of possible research areas include:

  • Systems biology research relevant to the microbial conversion of plant biomass to liquid fuels;

  • Understanding factors that control biomass yield, quality, and sustainability of feedstock crops; and

  • Using microbes for the capture of solar energy and the subsequent conversion to such fuels as hydrogen.


  • Secretary of Energy Samuel Bodman:
    This is an important step toward our goal of replacing 30 percent of transportation fuels with biofuels by 2030. The Energy Policy Act of 2005 (EPAct) calls for the creation of new programs to improve the technology and reduce the cost of biofuels production. The mission of these centers is to accelerate research that leads to breakthroughs in basic science to make biofuels a cost-effective alternative to fossil fuels.
    The US currently produces about four billion gallons of ethanol, mainly from corn. EPAct requires that by 2012, at least 7.5 billion gallons per year of renewable fuel be blended into the nation’s fuel supply. To meet these goals, future biofuels production will require the use of more diverse feedstocks including cellulosic material such as agricultural residues, grasses and other inedible plants.

    Universities, national laboratories, nonprofit organizations and private firms are eligible to compete for an award to establish and operate a center. To minimize the start-up costs and significantly decrease the time required for the Centers to become operational, the Centers will be established through renovating or leasing existing buildings rather than new construction.

    Awards, based on evaluation by scientific peer review, will be announced next summer. The centers are expected to begin work in 2008 and will be fully operational by 2009.

    The announcement of the Bioenergy Research Centers initiative culminates a six-year-long effort by the DOE Office of Science to lay the foundation for breakthroughs in systems biology for the cost-effective production of renewable energy.

    In early July, DOE’s Office of Science issued a joint biofuels research agenda with the Department’s Office of Energy Efficiency and Renewable Energy titled Breaking the Biological Barriers to Cellulosic Ethanol [see previous post]. The report provides a detailed roadmap for cellulosic ethanol research, identifying key roadblocks and areas where scientific breakthroughs are needed.

    The proposal deadline for this funding opportunity is February 1, 2007. DOE’s Office of Science will provide $25 million in the first year for the establishment of each center and up to $25 million per year for the following four years to support the operations of each center for a total award of up to $125 million per center.

    Resources:

  • US Department of Energy Genomics: GTL Bioenergy Research Centers

  • Bioenergy Research Center White Paper


  • Well, this is a start...

    I hope that this government-funded research (and hopefully there's more like this to come) serves a supporting role to industry to speed the time-to-market of cellulosic ethanol and doesn't retread the considerable amount of work already done by the private sector.

    These new research centers will perform 'basic' research on biofuels, which will hopefully yield new improvements to the existing processes for cellulosic ethanol and other biofuels production. And, as with any basic research, it will likely yield a few new surprises.


    [A hat tip to Green Car Congress]

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