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ARPA-E to award $60M to 2 programs: enhancing biomass yield and dry-cooling for thermoelectric power

ARPA-E’s vision of advanced phenotyping to enhance biomass yield. Click to enlarge.

The US Department of Energy’s Advanced Research Projects Agency-Energy (ARPA-E) will award up to $60 million to two new programs ($30 million each). The Transportation Energy Resources from Renewable Agriculture (TERRA) program (DE-FOA-0001211) seeks to accelerate biomass yield gains (especially energy sorghum) through automated, predictive and systems-level approaches to biofuel crop breeding. The Advanced Research In Dry cooling (ARID) program (DE-FOA-0001197) aims to develop low-cost, highly efficient and scalable dry-cooling technologies for thermoelectric power plants.

TERRA. ARPA-E posited that there is an urgent need to accelerate energy crop development for the production of renewable transportation fuels from biomass. While recent advances in technology has enabled the extraction of massive volumes of genetic, physiological, and environmental data from certain crops, the data still cannot be processed into the knowledge needed to predict crop performance in the field. This knowledge is required to improve the breeding development pipeline for energy crops.

Breeder’s yield
The rate of genetic gain or crop improvement per cycle of breeding (Rt) is related to the intensity of genetic selection, i, the extent of phenotypic variation controlled by genetics within the materials being screened (phenotypic variance, σA), the selection accuracy (r) impacted by the heritability of the trait(s) under selection, and the length of the breeding cycle, y.
Automated precision phenotyping can increase the intensity of genetic selection by providing more detailed phenotypic information (multiple times during a growing season, with spatial information and more information content) and by allowing more genetic material with a greater range of phenotypes to be screened per breeding cycle, thus accelerating the rate of genetic gain.
TERRA will emphasize development of innovative phenotyping systems that increase the precision, accuracy and throughput of breeding by developing approaches that can predict terminal phenotypes earlier in the growth cycle.

Building upon precision agriculture innovations and data-intensive computational approaches, ARPA-E believes that it is now possible to accelerate plant breeding, using robust high-throughput precision phenotyping.

TERRA represents a $30-million investment in technologies that increase the precision, accuracy and throughput of energy crop breeding, to enable:

  1. new predictive algorithms for plant growth;
  2. more detailed measurements for plant physiology; and
  3. more sophisticated bioinformatics pipelines for gene discovery and trait association.

TERRA is intended to enable breeders to evaluate more individual plants; to select appropriate plants for breeding earlier in the growing season; to capture better information about them during their development; and to associate this information with the best genes to propagate.

Success will be measured by the prospective ability to predict yield gains early, specifically, to identify which genes can improve carbon capture efficiency in newly cultivated bioenergy crops.

Although other crops will be considered, this program intends to focus on energy sorghum as a model system because of its potential for improvement through breeding, its resources for genetic analysis, its geographic adaptability, and its commercial utility.

Increasing the nation’s capacity to produce better bioenergy crops will help to alleviate many of the challenges presently faced by current biofuel feedstock. Recent technological advancements have made it possible to extract large volumes of data from a variety of crops; however, even with these resources the data cannot yet be processed into the knowledge needed to predict performance in the field. Increased information and analytics could improve crop yields to help lower the cost of biofuel production.

ARID. ARPA-E’s ARID program will focus on new power plant cooling technologies that could significantly improve the overall energy efficiency of thermoelectric power plants by enabling high thermal-to-electric energy conversion efficiency with zero net water dissipation into the atmosphere.

The US electric power industry has relied primarily on water cooling technologies to remove low grade heat from thermoelectric power plants. Of these technologies, cooling towers and spray ponds dissipate a substantial amount of water into the atmosphere via evaporation. Within a 20-year time horizon a combination of environmental concerns, increased water demand due to population growth, and the impact of climate change will likely significantly constrain the available water supply that can be allocated to power plant cooling.

Too, smaller scale distributed electric power generation will continue to penetrate the market, including in regions where water cooling for low-grade heat removal is not feasible.

ARPA-E is making up to $30 million available to assist ARID project teams in developing innovative, ultra-high-performance air-cooled heat exchangers, supplemental cooling systems and cool-storage systems that can cost-effectively and efficiently reject waste heat. Projects will be expected to demonstrate kilowatt-scale prototype testing of cooling technologies to ensure projects can be scaled up to megawatt cooling capacity without significant performance loss.

The majority of the electricity generated in the US today is produced by steam-driven turbine generators that rely on cooling systems, which use water to dissipate waste heat. Dry-cooling systems—which use air to cool and transfer waste heat—are an appealing and potentially transformational alternative. To date, significant technical and market challenges have hindered the widespread use of dry-cooling technologies. Some of these challenges are lower heat-transfer performance and operational control, as well as prohibitively high costs due to system size and maintenance. ARID project teams will work to overcome these key barriers to adoption.


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