Cutting-edge bioenergy projects earn ARPA-E funding

| September 30, 2011

The Advanced Research Projects Agency-Energy (ARPA-E) has awarded $36 million to PETRO-based projects, but the awards have little to do with fossil-based oil. The projects, housed under what the ARPA-E has labeled PETRO, or Plants Engineered To Replace Oil, are projects aimed at “dramatically improving how the U.S. uses and produces energy,” according to ARPA-E Director Arun Majumdar. “We are in another sputnik like moment in the race to develop clean energy technologies,” he said during the announcement of the awards, mimicking the same sentiment made by the U.S. DOE’s Steven Chu earlier this year. “As a country we have a choice to make. We can compete in the global marketplace creating American jobs and selling American products, or,” Majumdar said, “we can buy the technologies of tomorrow abroad.”

In total, ten projects under the PETRO category received funding. Gary Peter from the University of Florida, spoke during the announcement about his award to enhance the percentage of turpentine in southern pines from 3 percent to 20 percent, making the trees a potentially perfect energy crop for biofuel use. “Southern pines are a widely grown tree species in the south,” he explained, “and they naturally produce turpentine which is a natural liquid biofuels. Our product is designed to increase the turpentine storage capacity and increase production of turpentine in the wood.”

In the future, Peter added, if the project is successful, or even close to successful, “we can produce a hundred million gallons of renewable fuel per year in less than 25,000 acres.”

The impact of the ARPA-E funding for the high risk, high reward will help to accelerate the research team’s ability to increase the turpentine content in the trees quickly using three different complimentary strategies. “This likely wouldn’t be funded by the typical agencies and I really have to take my hat off to the approach by which the PETRO team took with their rigorous and demanding proposal in terms of how we justify that relative to fundamentals of carbon capture all the way through to economics.”

Peters project will receive $6,367,276, the most of any of the projects, and will be joined by nine other projects. The projects range from developing tobacco into an energy crop, to camelina enhancements, to projects like that being done at the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign, that will engineer sugarcane and sorghum to produce and store oil, instead of sugar. The work by the team will attempt to optimize the intensity of the leaf color to more efficiently capture and use sunlight, improving energy yields by up to 50 percent, compared to conventional crops, according to ARPA-E. The team will also crossbreed these crops with the energy grass miscanthus to increase their geographic range of cultivation.

For the full list of project’s awarded ARPA-E funding: