Government funding to support biofuels research

By Hope Deutscher
Posted July 28, 2009, at 9:49 a.m. CST

U.S. DOE Secretary Steven Chu and USDA Secretary Tom Vilsack announced July 22 the joint selection of up to $6.3 million in awards towards fundamental genomics-enabled research to improve the use of plant feedstocks for biofuel production.

The seven grants will be awarded under a joint DOE-USDA program that began in 2006 to conduct fundamental research in biomass genomics that will establish a scientific foundation to facilitate and accelerate the use of woody plant tissue for bioenergy and biofuel. The DOE will provide $4 million in funding for four projects; the USDA will award $2.3 million to fund three projects. Initial funding will support research projects for up to three years.

The investment in the seven chosen projects further the Obama Administration's efforts to broaden the nation's energy portfolio while decreasing our dependence on foreign oil, the agencies said. "Part of the solution to the energy problem will be home-grown energy crops," Chu said. "These projects will help us unlock the true potential of advanced biofuels, decrease our dependence on foreign oil, and create new jobs and a thriving biofuels industry in America."

During a recent presentation, Chu discussed the benefits of growing a perennial grass, such as miscanthus, which can be grown without irrigation or fertilizer, harvested in the fall and converted to ethanol. A plot of land outside of the University of Illinois can produce 15 times more ethanol than a similar of land growing corn, Chu said. "And the energy inputs are far less," he added. "So we need to develop methods in order to use these grassy, woody substances and also agricultural wastes, wheat straw, rice straw, corn stover, and lumber wastes. Much of the agricultural waste is being thrown away, burned or being put in landfills that can be converted to transportation fuel."

Receiving the awards are:

USDA-ARS Northern Plains Area (Lincoln, Neb.), $1,182,000
"The Hunt for Green Every April: Factors Affecting Fitness in Switchgrass"
This project will investigate winter survival in switchgrass populations and individual plants specifically selected for greater yields and with known differences in winter survival. Molecular events occurring in the crowns and rhizomes will be studied over two growing seasons and winters. The goal is to make a significant and lasting contribution to the future improvement of switchgrass as a bioenergy crop, and will also directly benefit researchers working on developing other perennial grasses into biomass energy crops.

USDA-ARS Western Regional Research Center (Albany, Calif.), $1,300,000
"Phenomic Analysis of Natural and Induced Variation in Brachypodium distachyon"
In this project, high-throughput phenotypic analysis (phenomics) of homozygous T-DNA mutants and natural accessions of the model grass Brachypodium distachyon (Brachypodium) will be conducted to accelerate the understanding of the basic biology underlying traits that control the utility of grasses as energy crops.

University of Georgia (Athens, Ga.), $1,200,000
"Accelerating the Domestication of Miscanthus for Biofuel Production"
This project will provide genomic tools and resources for a promising cellulosic biofuel crop, Miscanthus, that will foster innovative strategies for its improvement, as well as develop comparative and bioinformatic approaches to enhance fundamental knowledge of Miscanthus genome structure, function, and organization.

University of Georgia (Athens, Ga.), $705,000
"Improving Alfalfa as a Biofuel Feedstock" Research will focus on maximizing the production of energy from biofuels crops, which requires a high yield of biomass with optimum fuel quality. In this project, molecular markers that are associated with optimal biofuel characteristics will be identified in alfalfa and directly integrated into traditional field-oriented alfalfa breeding programs. The long-term goal of this project is to develop biofuel-ready alfalfa cultivars that have improved yield and quality.

Michigan Technological University (Houghton, Mich.), $900,000
"A Systems Biology Approach to Elucidate Regulation of Root Development in Populus"
This project will identify key regulators of root architecture in relation to nitrogen and water use in the bioenergy crop Populus using an integrated systems biology approach. This research will generate resources and innovations that can enable robust biomass productivity under marginal conditions for sustainable lignocellulosic biomass production.

University of Florida (Gainesville, Fla.), $643,000
"Mechanism of Carbon Partitioning Regulation by cpg13 in the Bioenergy Woody Crop Poplar"
This project will characterize genes that regulate the balance of carbon going to cellulosics or lignin, leading to the development of plant materials that are more suitable for biofuel production.

University of Nebraska (Lincoln, Neb.), $390,000
"Characterization of Nitrogen Use Efficiency in Sweet Sorghum"
Enhancing the ability of sweet sorghum to utilize nitrogen will increase its potential as a leading and cost-effective bioenergy crop. This project will identify novel nitrogen use efficiency alleles in wild sorghum germplasm that can be used to improve sweet sorghum.

The DOE also recently announced funding of up to $85 million over a three-year period from the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act to develop algae-based biofuels and advanced infrastructure compatible biofuels. A collaboration of scientists and engineers from universities, private industry and government will work together on new technologies for producing advanced biofuels that can be brought to market without major modifications to the existing fuel infrastructure.

In particular, the funding opportunity announcement (FOA) targets two areas. One is funding one or two projects between $25 million and $50 million to develop cost-effective, algae-based biofuels. Primarily, the DOE has three areas of interest: growing different strains of algae, harvesting and extracting lipids and carbohydrates from algae and conversion techniques to produce biofuels from algae.

The other area targeted by the DOE is an advanced, infrastructure-compatible biofuels consortia. One award totaling up to $35 million will be granted, with a 20 percent cost-share. The team will focus on using the existing production and distribution infrastructure without significant modifications or construction to meet domestic transportation needs. According to Stoel Rives LLP, the DOE is looking specifically for technology that's already sufficiently advanced and capable of being scale-tested within three years.

"This is part of the overall efforts within the DOE and as well as the EPA to speed the development of advanced biofuels," said Graham Noyes, an attorney with Stoel Rives. "And basically there's a strategic path developed looking at what needs to happen for advanced biofuels to ramp up in the way that they are schedule to ramp up under RFS2 and what the government is trying to do is apply strategic funding to help the industry overcome roadblocks and bring products to market faster."

In the short-term, Noyes said this FOA is unlikely to have an impact on the ethanol industry. "We basically have a race to commercialize cellulosic ethanol with a number of companies very active in that space and quite a few pilot plants that are currently in development," he said. "So I say short-term, this is not likely to have an impact but medium-term what the government is trying to do is speed technologies and probably bring in some new technologies, so I think this really facilitates more competition in terms of developing new biofuels and hopefully will also provide assistance to those who are already developing advanced biofuels in being able to move faster than they are since it's challenging to get some of the financing that's necessary to get this work done without government help."

In recent months the federal government has made several FOAs and Noyes said there is a lot of interesting in understanding the funding opportunities. "I think the challenge for the existing ethanol industry is that most of the government attention, particularly from the Stimulus Bill, is more advanced biofuels focused and less conventional biofuels; corn ethanol and soy biodiesel get less attention than the advanced biofuels do," he added.


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