Bioenergy projects receive DOE ARPA-E grants

By Anna Simet | December 01, 2015

U.S. Energy Secretary Ernest Moniz has announced that the U.S. DOE’s Advanced Research Projects Agency-Energy has awarded $125 million to 41 energy technology projects, four of which involve bioenergy or biomass.

According to program criteria, the projects selected for funding will pursue novel approaches to energy innovation across the full spectrum of energy applications. Approximately 36 percent are being led by universities, 39 percent by small businesses, 10 percent by large businesses, 10 percent by national labs, and 5 percent by nonprofits, according to the DOE.

Past solicitations for the program, which is focused on funding innovative technologies that display promise for both technical and commercial impact, but are too early for private-sector investment, were issued in 2009 and 2012. This year’s projects come from 21 states and encompass 10 technical categories, including transportation, electricity generation and delivery and energy efficiency.

Projects relevant to the bioenergy industry include:

“Converting Biogas to Liquid Fuels by Low Energy Electrical Corona,” which was awarded $2.25 million. During this project, Oregon State University will develop a process that converts methane to higher-chain hydrocarbons when passed through a corona discharge at close to ambient temperature. OSU describes it as “a radically different approach to carbon-carbon bond formation that could enable the selective conversion of biogas into high value products with energy expenditure similar to that required for thermal processes.”

Project “Disruptive Supplies of Affordable Biomass Feedstock Grown in the Open Ocean,” was awarded $2.14 million. During this project, California-based Marine BioEnergy Inc. will develop an open ocean cultivation system for macro algal biomass, which can be converted to a liquid fuel precursor. According to the project description, the system cycles between nutrient-rich deep water and sunlight at the ocean's surface to produce the biomass, and can also submerge to avoid storms and ships. The team’s technology could enable energy crop production in significant regions of the open ocean, with an initial focus on the U.S. Economic Exclusion Zone off California.

“Developing Ground Penetrating Radar for Enhanced Root and Soil Organic Carbon Imaging: Optimizing Bioenergy Crop Adaptation and Agro-ecosystem Services,” was awarded $4.6 million. For this project, Texas A&M University AgriLife Research will develop ground penetrating radar antenna arrays for 3D root and soil organic carbon imaging and quantification. The university believes visualization of root traits with one-mm resolution in soils could enable breeders to select climate-resilient bioenergy crops that provide higher yields, require fewer inputs, improve soil health, and promote carbon sequestration.

For project “SynPLASTome 2.0: Synthetic Plastid Genome to Reprogram Chloroplast Function for the Production of Fuels and Chemicals,” which was awarded $3.5 million, the University of Tennessee at Knoxville has proposed to develop synthetic genomes for plant chloroplasts and incorporate them into energy crops. The university believes synthetic chloroplast genomes may allow researchers to engineer more complex traits into bioenergy crops, and could greatly accelerate the yields from biomass energy crops along with the production of specialty chemicals.