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ARPA-E piloting crowdsourced energy challenge in biofuels

The US Department of Energy’s (DOE’s) Advanced Research Projects Agency - Energy (ARPA-E) is piloting a crowdsourced energy challenge, focused on ARPA-E’s PETRO (Plants Engineered To Replace Oil) program, which aims to increase the viability of biofuels by investing in research to double the energy-capture-per-unit area from that of corn ethanol. (Earlier post.)

The challenge asks “solvers” to present a detailed description and scientific rationale for a simple, rapid, and minimally invasive method to determine the energy content of plant material. Winners could receive up to $30,000.

The goal of the PETRO program is to engineer new crops to produce fuels that can be extracted from the plant itself, in contrast to traditional research in the area that focuses on breeding larger plants. To do this most effectively, ARPA-E desires an innovative method for measuring the energy content within plant tissues in such a way that the plant remains viable for propagation. Such measurements would ideally quantify the total energy content of the plant tissues less lignocellulosic biomass.

Historically, this energy content has been determined through destructive methods: cutting, drying, and then burning plant tissue to calculate the amount of energy released through combustion. While this approach is generally effective, it is also time-consuming, difficult to scale, and wasteful.

Measurement of selected energy rich molecules, be they a specific compound or a class of compounds (e.g. volatiles) would be an acceptable secondary outcome.

ARPA-E is working with InnoCentive, a leader in crowdsourcing innovation problems, and Booz Allen Hamilton to take on this challenge. InnoCentive has a global network of millions of problem solvers who have helped clients, including Eli Lily & Company, the Air Force Research Labs, NASA, and several other government agencies—among many others.




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