A Research Revolution

Three new U.S. DOE-funded research centers will house multidisciplinary teams of scientists from across the country with the aim of coordinating the basic research needed to accelerate the promise of cellulosic ethanol as a renewable, sustainable, secure and cost-competitive biofuel.
By Jessica Ebert | August 27, 2007
As he stood before a banner that read, "Energy Research to Fuel America," at the National Press Club in Washington D.C., Raymond Orbach, undersecretary for science at the U.S. DOE, spoke of notable moments in the nation's history when disparate groups joined forces to overcome scientific odds—challenges with environmental, economic and political implications. "One of America's great strengths as a nation has been our ability at critical moments in time to mobilize the scientific talents of our people to meet great challenges," he said. "We did so during World War II with the Manhattan Project. We did so again in the late 1950s in what we call the Sputnik generation and we are here to do it again."

On this day, June 26, DOE Energy Secretary Samuel Bodman announced that the agency would award up to $375 million for the establishment of three bioenergy research centers. The centers would be devoted to the fundamental research needed to develop the breakthrough technologies for harnessing the solar energy trapped in biomass and transforming it efficiently and economically for the production of biofuels. The three centers, which will be based in California, Tennessee and Wisconsin, will receive up to $125 million over the next five years and serve as home base for a consortium of academic, industrial and government research groups scattered across the country. "I think that they [the bioenergy research centers] may be the most important thing that we do during my time as your energy secretary," Bodman said. "Corn ethanol has its virtues but it also has its limits. For biofuels to put a real dent in our energy consumption without affecting the food supply and without adding to net carbon dioxide emissions, we need to learn to make biofuels cost-effectively from cellulose."

The origins of this new initiative stem in part from a joint workshop convened by the DOE's Office of Biological and Environmental Research in the Office of Science (SC) and the Office of the Biomass Program in the Office of Energy Efficiency and Renewable Energy. The purpose of the December 2005 workshop was to identify the bottlenecks in the wide-scale production of energy-efficient, cost-competitive cellulosic ethanol and to map ways to overcome these barriers. The workshop culminated in the publication of a 15-year strategy for developing a viable biomass-to-biofuels industry. This road map was divided into three phases: research, technology deployment and systems integration. On the heels of this report the DOE announced that funding would be available to establish two new bioenergy research centers. This was later upped to three when the SC budget for fiscal year 2008 was released. The awards provide an initial $25 million for start-up of each center followed by up to $25 million for operations of the centers in each of four subsequent years.

"In the first five years we're going to be doing the fundamental basic science to learn more about how we could alter the properties of plants to make them better bioenergy sources, how we can alter the processing of that plant material and how we can alter microbial and chemical systems to generate ethanol more efficiently or to generate other types of fuel from plant biomass," explains Timothy Donohue, principal investigator for what will be the DOE Great Lakes Bioenergy Research Center (GLBRC) based in Madison, Wis. "It will only be after this five-year period—when we have that fundamental information—that we will really begin to look at how these plants behave in an agricultural environment and how these new technologies will function in a refinery to generate fuel."

The Centers
The DOE BioEnergy Science Center (BESC) will be located in Oak Ridge, Tenn., and joins research groups from the Oak Ridge National Laboratory (ORNL), the Georgia Institute of Technology, the National Renewable Energy Laboratory, the University of Georgia, the University of Tennessee, Dartmouth College, ArborGen LLC, Verenium Corp., Mascoma Corp., Nobel Foundation, Brookhaven National Laboratory, Cornell University, North Carolina State University, the University of California, Riverside, the University of Minnesota, Virginia Tech University and Washington State University. ORNL will lead the research undertaken at the BESC, which will focus on overcoming the central barrier to the conversion of biomass to biofuels—the challenge of releasing the sugars that are ultimately fed into the fermentation process but are locked in the intricate and complex cage of lignin and cellulose that forms the plant cell wall. "Our center is focusing on one big biological problem, which is the fact that it is hard to break apart lignocellulose or biomass into its components in a way that you can then convert them and use them for energy," explains Brian Davison who will lead the characterization and modeling focus area of BESC. "We call this the recalcitrance of biomass," he says.

The state of Tennessee is currently building a new facility on the ORNL campus, which will be used partly for BESC research. Davison expects that the first monies from the DOE will roll in soon and that once funds are contracted out to all participating partners, the research should be moving forward by fall. "There is a sense of energy behind us," Davison says. "Most of us see this as something that can really shape the world to be a more sustainable place."

Likewise, the GLBRC expects to ramp up activities once new hires are in place, equipment is installed and renovations are complete. Donohue expects the center will be fully operational in early- to mid-'08. Partners in the GLBRC include the University of Wisconsin, Madison, Michigan State University, the Pacific Northwest National Laboratory, Lucigen Corp., the University of Florida, Oak Ridge National Laboratory, Illinois State University and Iowa State University. This center will be led by and housed at the University of Wisconsin, Madison. The research will attempt to remove bottlenecks at various points in the conversion of biomass-to-biofuels by engineering plants to produce more easily degradable cell walls, and developing new physical and chemical treatments for the conversion of biomass into sugars and sugars into fuel, hydrogen, electricity or other biobased chemical feedstocks. "We view this as a pipeline with plant material going in and fuels coming out," Donohue says. "What I think is going to happen in this center and with the other centers is that groups of people will be brought together to work on these problems in a coordinated way because there will be guaranteed funding that will allow us to take more risks to develop innovative approaches that might not have been possible before."

Finally, the DOE Joint BioEnergy Institute (JBEI), a collaboration including Sandia National Laboratories, the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory, the University of California, Berkeley, the University of California, Davis and Stanford University will be organized like a biotech start-up company with the aim of rapidly transferring research results to private industry for commercial development. This center will be located in the San Francisco Bay area and will be headquartered in a leased building in the East Bay. In the short-term, research undertaken by JBEI scientists will focus on improving enzymes for the degradation of plant cell walls, improving the tolerance of microbes to the stringent conditions of industrial processing and gaining a greater understanding of how lignocellulose is made. Long-term, JBEI research will involve the engineering of plants for energy production and of microbes capable of degrading plant matter and producing fuel in a single bioreactor. "The investment we are making in these bioenergy centers is high risk but we expect that they will show us the way to overcome the barriers that are keeping us from developing wide-scale, cost-effective biofuels from cellulose," Bodman said.

Jessica Ebert is an Ethanol Producer Magazine staff writer. She can be reached at [email protected] or (701) 746-8385.