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DOE to fund up to $12M in FY 2012 for work on innovative biosynthetic pathways for transformational improvements in biofuels production

The US Department of Energy (DOE) is soliciting (DE-FOA-0000719) research projects for up approximately $12 million in awards in FY 2012 for work on biosynthetic pathways for advanced biofuels to demonstrate transformational, not incremental, improvements in yield and productivity.

Synthetic biology technologies hold promise for addressing critical barriers in the biological and chemical production of important advanced biofuels and products, notes the DOE, including such barriers as product inhibition, tolerance to inhibitors, process robustness in the face of complex pretreatment processes and low yields, and productivity of conversion processes. The FOA invites the R&D community to apply these newer techniques to enhance and enable the development in biological or hybrid systems for producing advanced biofuels and high energy impact bio-based products. The focus of the FOA is in two topic areas:

  1. Intermediate Production. Innovative synthetic biological approaches to the cost-effective fractionation of lignocellulosic biomass, both terrestrial and aquatic, into processable components such as fermentable sugars, modified lignin suitable for conversion to higher value materials, and oligomeric sugar fractions or biopolymers that are more easily converted to monomers for further processing.

  2. Intermediate Transformations. Innovative synthetic biological approaches to the cost-effective and high yield conversion of processable component fractions into advanced biofuels and high-energy impact bioproducts.

The desired outcome is to improve the current performance metrics for lignocellulosic processing. DOE expects applications for the funding to target “transformational changes” in the way biomass is currently processed and converted into fuels and chemicals.  For purposes of this FOA, the term “transformational” refers to a process that is significantly or markedly changed for the better (as opposed to small or incremental improvements).

More particularly, the Office of the Biomass Program has published its multi-year program plan (MYPP) which contains many of the performance metrics that must be achieved to allow biomass to be a resource for the production of fuels and chemicals.  This FOA seeks applications that exceed the performance benchmarks found in the Biomass Program’s MYPP.

For example, says the DOE, research in obtaining clean lignocellulosic sugars has usually seen incremental changes in costs, on the order of pennies per pound.  Becoming totally competitive with existing sugar costs would be “transformational.”  Similarly, the road to achieving high productivities and yields for fermentations producing cellulosic ethanol has historically seen only incremental improvements.  Applications responsive to the FOA would be those that propose a process for circumventing traditional approaches in converting lignocellulosic biomass to fuels. For example, a technology or approach that greatly reduces the cycle time in developing appropriate fermentative organisms could represent a “transformational change.” 

Consolidated bioprocessing for advanced biofuels could be considered a transformative technology. While this approach has been implemented for cellulosic ethanol, its use for producing other advanced biofuels has not been demonstrated along with the performance metrics that make it transformational. Simply demonstrating a CBP approach to produce another advanced biofuel would not be considered as meaningful as developing a CBP approach that significantly increases yields and productivity.

Representative targets for the target areas could be:

  • For Topic Area 1, Intermediate Production, a potential desired outcome could be the demonstrated production of clean monomeric sugars (C6 and C5) at a cost of approximately $0.12-$0.20 per pound.

    Other potential desired outcomes could be production of clean streams of biopolymers suitable for further processing with simple chemical or biological processes that reduce energy intensity by a factor of 10. Use of synthetic biology to achieve meaningful manipulation of ruminant type anaerobic systems to isolate components suitable for processing into advanced biofuels with yields comparable to bioreactor production (1-5 g/L/h or higher) could also be a target metric.

  • For Topic Area 2, Intermediate Transformations, a potential high impact outcome could be the increase in fermentative productivity of bioconversions from 1-2 g/L/h to 5-10 g/L/h for new conversion processes (including hybrid chemical and biological processes) to produce advanced biofuels. Another desirable outcome could be the reduction in process energy for product production, separation, and purification by a factor of 10 from current energy requirements. Another potentially useful outcome for any proposed immobilized cell bioreactors systems could be to improve the cell density from 109 cells/mL to values that increase productivity by large factors such as 5 or 10.

Maximum Federal funding for an individual award made under this FOA is $2.5 million; minimum Federal amount for an individual award is $500,000. DOE anticipates making 4-8 awards under this announcement, depending on the amount of each award.


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