DOE invests in energy research centers

By Hope Deutscher
Posted May 18, 2009, at 9:15 a.m. CST

The U.S. DOE recently announced that the agency's Office of Science will invest $777 million in Energy Frontier Research Centers over the next five years. Forty-six multimillion dollar EFRCs will be established at universities, national laboratories, nonprofit organizations and privation firms in an effort to accelerate the scientific breakthroughs required to build a new 21st century energy economy.

The centers will be funded through President Obama's Recovery and Reinvestment Act. According to the federal government, the EFRCs will bring together leading scientists to address a variety of issues ranging from biofuels, advanced nuclear systems, solar energy, electricity storage and carbon capture and sequestration. The 45 centers will receive between $2 million and $5 million per year for a planned initial five-year period. The DOE issued a solicitation in 2008 and received approximately 260 applications. Over 110 institutions from 36 states and the District of Columbia will participate in the EFRC projects. Approximately a third of the researchers will be supported by Recovery Act funding, the DOE and White House said.

One of the facilities receiving funds is the Center for Direct Catalytic Conversion of Biomass to Biofuels (C3Bio) at Purdue University in West Lafayette, Ind. The center will receive $20 million to further study the interactions between catalysts and plant cell walls to design improved processes for the conversion of biomass to energy, fuels, or chemicals. McCann said the center will collaborate with the University of Tennessee, the National Renewable Energy Laboratory and Argonne National Laboratory, which have facilities capable of examining the interaction of catalysts with biomass at the atomic level.

C3Bio will investigate methods to directly convert plant lignocellulosic biomass, the bulk of a plant, to biofuels and other biobased products currently derived from oil by the use of new chemical catalysts and thermal treatments. The team aims to produce fuels that closely resemble gasoline in terms of their molecular makeup and energy density, said Maureen McCann, who leads the project and is an associate professor of biological sciences at Purdue University.

"The science of chemical catalysis hasn't been much applied to turning biomass into biofuels," McCann said. "We thought there was a real gap in applying a science that is the foundation of the petrochemical industry but for which very little research exists on living plants, or as we like to call them, young coal." Most of the reactions used in the petrochemical industry starting from oil, she said, rely on inorganic chemical catalysts.

In current fermentation technology, biological catalysts are used to break down starch in corn kernels to glucose; living organisms, such as bacteria or yeast, also use their own enzymes to produce ethanol from the glucose. Research is being conducted to use biological catalysts to break down plant biomass as a more abundant source of glucose and other sugars for fermentation by the bacteria or yeast. "The fermentation technologies are only 40 percent to 50 percent efficient in terms of the carbon atoms you started out with in the biomass ending up in fuel molecules," she said. "We think with different catalysts, the lignin could actually be used and converted to fuel molecules. If we can use the lignin, there is the potential to double the amount of fuel from each unit of biomass. Also that fuel could be more energy-dense, more similar to gasoline, than ethanol."

Bypassing the fermentation process could also help scale down biorefinery size, McCann said. "If you could use chemical catalysts or a combination of catalysts with heat, you might be able to scale down the large and expensive refineries that you need to carry out the fermentations," she said. "It may even make mobile hydrocarbon refineries possible, where you could take the refinery to the field instead of having to transport heavy biomass to another location."

Among the entities slated to receive Energy Frontier Research Centers funding are:

Center for Lignocellulose Structure and Function at Pennsylvania State University will focus on dramatically increasing the fundamental knowledge of the physical structure of bio-polymers in plant cell walls to provide a basis for improved methods for converting biomass into fuels. The center will study the physical structure of lignocellulose at the nanoscale level and the rules and principles by which lignocellulose is created. An interdisciplinary team of plant and microbial molecular biologists, chemists, physicists, material scientists, engineers and computational modelers will utilize advanced, cutting-edge approaches and methodology to bring about advances in the fundamental understanding of the "rules of assembly" of plant cell wall. Specifically, the focus will be placed on understanding the cellulose synthesis, lignocellulose assembly, and the relationship between nanoscale structure and macroscale properties such as porosity and mechanics of the plant cell wall. The researchers say the center's focus could transform the bioenergy and materials sciences and will include collaboration with scientists at North Carolina State University and Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University.

Rational Design of Innovative Catalytic Technologies for Biomass Derivative Utilization at the University of Delaware will design and characterize novel catalysts for the efficient conversion of the complex molecules comprising biomass into chemicals and fuels.

Institute for Atom-Efficient Chemical Transformations at the Argonne National Laboratory will discover, understand, and control efficient chemical pathways for the conversion of coal and biomass into chemicals and fuels.

Energy Frontier Research Center for Combustion Science at Princeton University will develop a suite of predictive combustion modeling capabilities for the chemical design and utilization of non-petroleum based fuels in transportation.

Center for Catalytic Hydrocarbon Functionalization at the University of Virginia will focus on developing novel catalysts and manipulating their reactivity for the efficient conversion of hydrocarbon gases into liquid fuels. Specifically, this EFRC will focus on novel catalysts for the conversion of hydrocarbon gases to more useful liquids through the controlled addition of oxygen.

For more information on the Energy Frontier Research Centers to to