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US DOE to Invest $250 Million in New Biofuels Centers

From biomass to cellulosic ethanol. Click to enlarge. High-resolution version here.

The US Department of Energy (DOE) will spend $250 million to establish and operate two new Bioenergy Research Centers to accelerate basic research on the development of cellulosic ethanol and other biofuels from biomass, including biodiesel, biofuels for aviation, and biologically based hydrogen and other fuels from sunlight.

The centers’ mission will be to conduct systems biology research on microbes and plants. A major focus will be on understanding how to reengineer biological processes for more efficient conversion of plant fiber, or cellulose, into ethanol, a substitute for gasoline.

Research Centers will address scientific problems that are inherently interdisciplinary and will require scientific expertise and technological capabilities that span the physical and biological sciences, including genomics, microbial and plant biology, analytical chemistry, computational biology and bioinformatics, and engineering.

Examples of possible research areas include:

  • Systems biology research relevant to the microbial conversion of plant biomass to liquid fuels;

  • Understanding factors that control biomass yield, quality, and sustainability of feedstock crops; and

  • Using microbes for the capture of solar energy and the subsequent conversion to such fuels as hydrogen.

This is an important step toward our goal of replacing 30 percent of transportation fuels with biofuels by 2030. The Energy Policy Act of 2005 (EPAct) calls for the creation of new programs to improve the technology and reduce the cost of biofuels production. The mission of these centers is to accelerate research that leads to breakthroughs in basic science to make biofuels a cost-effective alternative to fossil fuels.

—Secretary of Energy Samuel Bodman

The US currently produces about four billion gallons of ethanol, mainly from corn. EPAct requires that by 2012, at least 7.5 billion gallons per year of renewable fuel be blended into the nation’s fuel supply. To meet these goals, future biofuels production will require the use of more diverse feedstocks including cellulosic material such as agricultural residues, grasses and other inedible plants.

Universities, national laboratories, nonprofit organizations and private firms are eligible to compete for an award to establish and operate a center. To minimize the start-up costs and significantly decrease the time required for the Centers to become operational, the Centers will be established through renovating or leasing existing buildings rather than new construction.

Awards, based on evaluation by scientific peer review, will be announced next summer. The centers are expected to begin work in 2008 and will be fully operational by 2009.

The announcement of the Bioenergy Research Centers initiative culminates a six-year-long effort by the DOE Office of Science to lay the foundation for breakthroughs in systems biology for the cost-effective production of renewable energy.

In early July, DOE’s Office of Science issued a joint biofuels research agenda with the Department’s Office of Energy Efficiency and Renewable Energy titled Breaking the Biological Barriers to Cellulosic Ethanol. The report provides a detailed roadmap for cellulosic ethanol research, identifying key roadblocks and areas where scientific breakthroughs are needed. (Earlier post.)

The proposal deadline for this funding opportunity is February 1, 2007. DOE’s Office of Science will provide $25 million in the first year for the establishment of each center and up to $25 million per year for the following four years to support the operations of each center for a total award of up to $125 million per center.




I'd be interested to hear the thoughts of folks like Rafael and Alan on this. Will the DOE's interest be playing catch-up and retreading on the ground already being covered by private industry, or do you think it'll actually make a significant contribution to the continued evolution of the market?

Rafael Seidl

The focus on basic systems biology seems appropriate but as with all basic science, the research goals should not be overly rigid. It is in the nature of the beast to deliver surprises.

For example, intensive algae farming, leveraging e.g. flue gases from existing coal-fired power stations, is arguably worth a second look at current oil prices. Similarly, grant applications for research into optimizing the conversion of photosynthetic matter into a combustible hydrocarbon other than ethanol (e.g. butanol, biodiesel) should be eligible - a narrow focus on ethanol alone could prove an ill-advised subsidy to a private industry that is already booming anyhow. Publicly funded research should focus on those high-risk high-reward projects that private industry is not prepared to tackle.

Wrt to the size of the endowments: $25 million a year for up to 5 years is a sizeable chunk of change for a research institution. Since this is taxpayer's money, the Freedom of Information Act ought to apply and the results made public - as opposed to privately funded or military research. However, it is telling that the total sum allocated for this program is equivalent to just two or three days' worth of (increasingly futile) operations in Iraq. As an outside observer, these spending priorities make little sense to me.

allen Z

To add to comments above:
___There must be care as to how the govt helps build up, this emerging green energy/economy. Do too much and it will bubble like the Tech boom of the 90's. It must be directed into areas of high impact, but currently of little interest/investment. Otherwise you are just crowding and possibly inviting overinvestment.
___That said, algae and waste/garbage energy look good, even better than celluostic ethanol. Algae may be put in a sulfur free/deficient environment to produce H2. On the other hand, just pump in partially treated and sterilized sewage and CO2 for conventional production. Garbage can produce methane, which is much needed when we start to run short of domestic fossil gas supplies. The resulting CO2 from the biological process can be used to boost algae oil/biomass production, esp. at altitude. Both are lacking (algae much more than garbage gas) investment in the US. There is the Big Agri lobby, and to deal with them requires Big political capital.
___The DOE MUST also goad/help the utilities to rebuild, and expand the electrical grid for the US, from long distance interstate high voltage lines, to inner city underground feeder cables. On top of that, power demand is projected to increase 50% in the coming decades. Increasing efficiency of the powerplants (maybe combined cycle gas turbine-steam powerplants with heat cogeneration on the side) is a must. Additional sources from renewables is another must. This is particularly urgent because of the emerging class of plugin hybrids. Additionally, the possiblility of an emergence of viable electric vehicles with good to great performance and 240-400 (current-future) mile range with fast recharge (4hrs-15min-2min) will result in increased demand at night and noon/afternoon. NIMBY crowd must also be overcome/accommodated.


Welcome back.
This particular DOE program is only small part of US government spending to bio energy R&D.
As for spending priorities: somebody has to counterweight for 100+ M$ EU pays daily for its oil for a nice Iranian guy. Any way, I suppose EU governments spend much more then US on bio energy research, considering they do not spend money on Iraq and should have some spare?

allen Z

Getting a little off the point, many EU nations spend what they do not spend on their military on welfare. From retirement pensions to unemployment to subsidies, they also face aging/shrinking populations and a host of other problems. Then they have to support Afghanistan via NATO, and start to reequip their armed forces with next generation systems to replace Cold War era equipment. It is not so rosy for them.
___I do agree that they do have to get off fossil energy as much they can, esp oil and natural gas since the North Sea is declining. The funds also go to despots (except Norway), and other less than favorable nations. Perhaps they can trim their farm subsidies (and other subsidies for that matter) and reapply them towards renewables.


It seems like the government can do what the private sector can't or won't do, but needs doing. If that is the case, then most of these programs could be evaluated on that basis.

no more wars

... take more, give less, take some more, give much less, take much more, give even less, and so on ... you get the idea ... but do you ? ... hint ? ... the laws of conservation of mass, conservation of energy, the first and second laws of thermodynamics ... if we take, we must give, in simple terms ... universal law ... resistance is futile ... take from the land, but where does it go ? ... and where does it come from ? ... ah, and what gives ? ... from oil, no less ... give in the form of pesticides, chemicals, fertilizers, tractor diesel ... pandora oil box ... open it, young pandora, open, it is so good, insisted the gods ... newsflash: huge biomass appears magically at the door of synth bioconversion plant, no transport needed, no diesel wasted ... another newsflash: after fields are cleaned of crops and husks, a new crop surges up magically ... yet another newsflash: worms are useless ... aaaah, the pleasures of technofixes ...

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