DOE and USDA slates more than $10 Million
in Bioenergy Plant Feedstock Research

WASHINGTON, DC –– Gale Buchanan, Agriculture Under Secretary for Research, Education and Economics, and Energy Department (DOE) Under Secretary for Science Raymond Orbach announced plans on July 31, 2008 to award 10 grants totaling more than $10 million to accelerate fundamental research in the development of cellulosic biofuels.

“USDA is committed to fostering a sustainable domestic biofuels industry at home in rural America,” Buchanan said. “These grants will broaden the sources of energy from many crops as well as improve the efficiency and options among renewable fuels.”

“Cellulosic biofuels offer one of the best near- to mid-term alternatives we have, on the energy production side, to reduce reliance and imported oil and cut greenhouse gas emissions, while continuing to meet the nation’s transportation energy needs,” Orbach said.

“Developing costeffective means of producing cellulosic biofuels on a national scale poses major scientific challenges—these grants will help in developing the type of transformational breakthroughs needed in basic science to make this happen.”

The grants will be awarded under a joint DOE-USDA program begun in 2006 which aims to accelerate fundamental research in biomass genomics to further the use of cellulosic plant material for bioenergy and biofuels.

DOE's Office of Biological and Environmental Research will provide $8.8 million while USDA’s Cooperative State Research, Education and Extension Service will provide $2 million to the following institutions over a three year period:

• Boyce Thompson Institute for Plant Research (Ithaca, NY), $882,000

• Colorado State University (Fort Collins, CO), $1,500,000

• University of Georgia (Athens, GA), $1,295,000

• University of Georgia(Athens, GA), $1,200,000

• University of Massachusetts (Amherst, MA), $1,200,000

• Michigan State University (East Lansing, MI), $540,000

• Pennsylvania State University (State College, PA), $587,191

• Purdue University (West Lafayette, IN), $1,200,000

• Oregon State University (Corvallis, OR), $1,200,000

• Oregon State University (Corvallis, OR), $1,200,000

Cellulosic biofuels are made from a wide variety of plant materials or non-food based feedstocks and energy crops.

Note: For more information that traces (often in much technical detail) the key challenges and opportunities surrounding cellulosic ethanol, you might want to download the report:

Breaking the Biological Barriers to Cellulosic Ethanol: A Joint Research Agenda


The report was published in June 2006 and was based on "The Biomass to Biofuels Workshop," held December 7–9, 2005, in Rockville, Maryland.

The workshop was sponsored by the U.S. Department of Energy, Office of Biological and Environmental Research, and the Office of Energy Efficiency and Renewable Energy.

The report can be downloaded as a pdf; however, it is about 216 pages, and the file size is 6.1 MB. So, if you're with a dial-up internet service provider, be prepared.

Click here: Breaking the Biological Barriers to Cellulosic Ethanol: A Joint Research Agenda

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Why switchgrass
was selected as a “model” high-potential energy crop

Published in July 2007, the Historical Perspective on How and Why Switchgrass was Selected as a “Model” High-Potential Energy Crop is a 59-page report.

It was prepared by Lynn Wright, Consultant to Bioenergy Resources and Engineering Systems, Environmental Sciences Division, of the Oakridge National Laboratory.

The screening trials funded by the U.S. Department of Energy in the late 1980s to early 1990s assessed a wide range of about 34 species with trials being conducted on a wide range of soil types in 31 different sites spread over seven states in crop producing regions of the U.S.

Photo: Brett Hampton / USDA

While several species were identified as having merit for further development, the majority of institutions involved in the herbaceous species screening studies identified switchgrass as having high priority for further development.

Six of the seven institutions either included switchgrass among the 2-3 species with highest potential in their region, or recommended that further research be done on switchgrass in their region.





Iowa State Univ. is researching
sugar beets as feedstock for biofuel

AMES, Iowa — Two Iowa State University research farms are growing sugar beets to determine their biofuel potential in Iowa.

The research is being conducted at the Muscatine Island Research and Demonstration Farm in Fruitland and the Southeast Research and Demonstration Farm, which is located near Crawfordsville.

“Our work is important because it will provide estimates of potential sugar beet yield so work can begin on developing realistic energy budgets and profitability of using sugar beets as a biofuel,” said Vince Lawson, superintendent of the Muscatine Island research farm.

sugarbeets Sugar beets are very efficient at making sugar, according to Iowa State University researchers. Further research will begin to develop realistic energy budgets and profitability of converting sugar beets into biofuel.
Photo: Scott Bauer | ARS

Although the research on sugar beets is in the early stages, the crop is very efficient at making sugar, the primary ingredient converted to ethanol. The goal of the research project is to determine if sugar beets would be a valuable alternative crop to grow for ethanol production.

The trial began in April 2008, where a half-acre was planted at each farm. The Southeast research farm project found that on average, 5.5 tons of sugar could be extracted from 35.4 tons of beets.

Those 5.5 tons of sugar would end up making 898 gallons of ethanol. Similarly, the Muscatine Island research farm produced an average of 4 tons of sugar, which were extracted from 24.7 tons of beets.

Lawson said that the crop was shown to have potential and the next step is to continue planting more sugar beets in 2009 and fine-tune some fertility and production problems that were identified in 2008.

Heartland Renewable Energy and Syngenta provided the funding and support of the research project.

Heartland Renewable Energy plans to build an ethanol plant in Muscatine in 2011. Syngenta provided seed for four types of sugar beet varieties.

Iowa State is a leader in biofuel research, continually looking for alternative answers to energy issues. Other research occurring on campus includes:

Fast-growing trees could take root
as future energy source

WEST LAFAYETTE, IN — A tree that can reach 90 feet in six years and be grown as a row crop on fallow farmland could represent a major replacement for fossil fuels.

Purdue University researchers are using genetic tools in an effort to design trees that readily and inexpensively can yield the substances needed to produce alternative transportation fuel.

The scientists are focused on a compound in cell walls called lignin that contributes to plants' structural strength, but which hinders extraction of cellulose. Cellulose is the sugar-containing component needed to make the alternative fuel ethanol.

hybrid poplars for energy Purdue researchers believe that hybrid poplars and similar trees planted like row crops could be processed into ethanol as an alternative fuel.
Photo: Jake Eaton / Potlatch Corp.

The Department of Energy's Office of Biological and Environmental Research is funding a $1.4 million, three-year study by Purdue faculty members Clint Chapple, Richard Meilan and Michael Ladisch to determine ways to alter lignin and test whether the genetic changes affect the quality of plants used to produce biofuels. The funding was presented in 2006.

A hybrid poplar tree is the basis for the research that is part of the DOE's goal to replace 30 percent of the fossil fuel used annually in the United States for transportation with biofuels by 2030.

In 2005 ethanol accounted for only 4 billion gallons of the 140 billion gallons of U.S. transportation fuel used — less than 3 percent. About 13 percent of the nation's corn crop was used for that production.

Purdue scientists and experts at the U.S. departments of Agriculture and Energy say corn can only be part of the solution to the problem of replacing fossil fuel.

"If Indiana wants to support only corn-based ethanol production, we would have to import corn," said Chapple, a biochemist. "What we need is a whole set of plants that are well-adapted to particular growing regions and have high levels of productivity for use in biofuel production."

Chapple and Meilan want to genetically modify the hybrid poplar so that lignin will not impede the release of cellulose for degradation into fermentable sugars, which then can be converted to ethanol.

The changed lignin also may be useable either in fuel or other products, they said. Currently about 25 percent of the material in plants is the complex molecule lignin, which in its present form could be burned to supply energy for ethanol production, but cannot be transformed into the alternative fuel.

Altering lignin's composition or minimizing the amount present in a cell wall could improve access of enzymes. With easier access, enzymes would be able to more efficiently convert cellulose to sugars.

Current treatments used for extracting lignin from woody products for pulp and paper production are harsh and pollute the environment, said Meilan, a Purdue Department of Forestry and Natural Resources molecular tree physiologist.

To advance production of non-fossil fuels, Chapple and Meilan are using genetic tools to modify the poplar and then study how the alterations changed the plants' cell walls. Meilan also is attempting to find ways to produce trees that are reproductively sterile so they are unable to transfer introduced traits to wild trees.

When Chapple and Meilan are satisfied with the results, they will give wood samples to Ladisch, a distinguished professor of agricultural and biological engineering, so he can determine if the changes have created trees suitable for high-yield ethanol production.

hybrid poplar trees Clint Chapple, (left), and Rick Meilan are using genetic tools to find ways to convert trees into ethanol.
Photo: Tom Campbell / Purdue Univ.

Using hybrid poplar and its relatives as the basis for biofuels has a number of advantages for the environment, farmers and the economy, they said.

"Poplar is a low-maintenance crop; plant it and wait seven years to harvest it," Meilan said. "You're not applying pesticides every year; you're not trampling all over the site every year and compacting the soil. You're allowing nutrients to recycle every year when the leaves fall and degrade. In addition, you are more likely to have greater wildlife diversity in poplar plantings than in agricultural fields."

Experts are proposing planting the trees in rows just like any field crop. The basis of these tree plantations will be tens of millions of acres that the DOE and USDA have inventoried as being unused or fallow — previously used farmland that is standing empty because farmers are paid not to grow anything.

"We need a bioenergy crop that can grow many places year-round,” Meilan said. "The genus Populus includes about 30 species that grow across a wide climatic range from the subtropics in Florida to sub-alpine areas in Alaska, northern Canada and Europe."

Corn can be grown only in a few areas of the world and only during a relatively short growing season. Besides needing potential fuel-source crops that can be grown year-round and in many geographical locations, experts also want to increase the per acre tonnage yield of crops and the gallons of ethanol per ton.

Researchers believe that using the hybrid poplar in its present form could produce about 70 gallons of fuel per ton of wood. Approximately 10 tons of poplar could be grown per acre annually, representing 700 gallons of ethanol.

Corn currently produces about 4.5 tons per acre per year with a yield of about 400 gallons of ethanol. Changing the lignin composition could increase the annual yield to 1,000 gallons of ethanol per acre, according to experts. Planted on 110 million acres of unused farmland, this could replace 80 percent of the transportation fossil fuel consumed in the United States each year.

"We don't want to compromise the structural integrity of the plant," Meilan said. "We just want to alter the lignin composition to make it easier to liberate the cellulose for conversion to simple sugars that the yeast can gobble up and turn into ethanol."

Chapple and Meilan are affiliated with the Energy Center and the Bindley Bioscience Center at Purdue's Discovery Park. Meilan also is affiliated with the Hardwood Tree Improvement and Regeneration Center. Ladisch is director of Laboratory of Renewable Resources Engineering (LORRE).

Purdue's Discovery Park is designed to bring together researchers from a wide range of specialties and provide an environment for interdisciplinary research that explores new ideas, technologies and moves research to the marketplace. It is now a $300 million enterprise with 10 established research centers.


Duckweed Genome Sequencing Has Global Implications

Pond scum can undo pollution, fight global warming
and alleviate world hunger

Piscataway, NJ –– Three plant biologists at Rutgers’ Waksman Institute of Microbiology are obsessed with duckweed, a tiny aquatic plant with an unassuming name. Now they have convinced the federal government to focus its attention on duckweed’s tremendous potential for cleaning up pollution, combating global warming and feeding the world.

duckweed (l. to r.) Professors Randall Kerstetter, Joachim Messing and Todd Michael collecting duckweed samples from the Delaware and Raritan Canal near Rutgers University.
Photo: Carl Blesch

This enterprise builds upon Rutgers’ burgeoning energy and environmental research and the important contributions Waksman Institute scientists have already made to plant genomics, including the sequencing of rice, sorghum and corn.

At the behest of the Rutgers scientists and their colleagues from five other institutions, the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) will channel resources at its national laboratories into sequencing the genome of the lowly duckweed. The DOE’s Joint Genome Institute announced on July 2 that its Community Sequencing Program will support the genomic sequencing of duckweed (Spirodela polyrhiza) as one of its priority projects for 2009 directed toward new biomass and bioenergy programs.

According to the researchers, duckweed plants can extract nitrogen and phosphate pollutants from agricultural and municipal wastewater.

They can reduce algae growth, coliform bacterial counts and mosquito larvae on ponds, while concentrating heavy metals, capturing or degrading toxic chemicals, and encourage the growth of other aquatic animals such as frogs and fowl.

These plants produce biomass faster than any other flowering plant, serve as high-protein feed for domestic animals and show clear potential as an alternative for biofuel production.

Todd Michael, a member of the Waksman Institute and an assistant professor of plant biology and pathology at Rutgers, The State University of New Jersey, led the multi-institutional initiative to have the DOE’s Joint Genome Institute perform high-throughput sequencing of this smallest, fastest growing and simplest of flowering plants.

“The Spirodela genome sequence could unlock the remarkable potential of a rapidly growing aquatic plant for absorbing atmospheric carbon dioxide, ecosystem carbon cycling and biofuel production,” said Michael, who is also a member of the faculty of the School of Environmental and Biological Sciences.

His collaborators in this undertaking include professors Randall Kerstetter and Joachim Messing of the Waksman Institute, and scientists at Brookhaven National Laboratory, the Institut für Integrative Biologie (Switzerland), the University of Jena (Germany), Kyoto University (Japan) and Oregon State University.

The DOE’s Joint Genome Institute is operated by the University of California and includes five national laboratories – Lawrence Berkeley, Lawrence Livermore, Los Alamos, Oak Ridge and Pacific Northwest – and the Stanford Human Genome Center.

With the passage of the Energy Policy Act of 2005 and recent increases in food prices worldwide, the drive to develop sustainable feedstocks and processing protocols for biofuel production has intensified.

The search for new biomass species has revealed the potential of duckweed species in this regard as well as for bioremediation and environmental carbon capture.