The U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) recently announced that it will invest $250 million to establish and operate two Bioenergy Research Centers, which will concentrate on accelerating the development of cellulosic ethanol and other biofuels. One main focus of the research will be to make the process of converting cellulose (plant fiber) to ethanol more efficient and cost effective.

Creating the Bioenergy Research Centers is part of the Energy Policy Act of 2005 (EPAct), which President Bush signed a year ago on August 8. EPAct requires that by 2012, at least 7.5 billion gallons of renewable fuel be blended into the nation’s fuel supply annually. It is estimated that 4 billion gallons of corn-derived ethanol will be produced this year, so ethanol made from other feedstock is needed to make up the difference and meet the bill’s future goals. An alternative to corn-derived ethanol is cellulosic ethanol, which is produced from material like agricultural residue and grasses and is the main subject of research at the new centers.

Cellulosic ethanol can be produced from a variety of plants in the United States

Cellulosic ethanol can be produced from a variety of plants in the United States. Credit: U.S. Department of Energy Genome Programs, http://doegenomes.org

“This is an important step toward our goal of replacing 30 percent of transportation fuels with biofuels by 2030,” DOE Secretary Samuel Bodman said. “The Energy Policy Act of 2005 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.”

Researchers will try to simplify the traditional cellulosic ethanol conversion process while increasing the yield of biomass production and processing.

Researchers will try to simplify the traditional cellulosic ethanol conversion process while increasing the yield of biomass production and processing. Credit: U.S. Department of Energy Genome Programs, http://doegenomes.org

In addition to cellulosic ethanol, the Bioenergy Research Centers will work to develop energy-efficient and cost-effective methods for producing biodiesel, biofuels for aviation, hydrogen, and methane. DOE cites other possible research areas as 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 to be converted into fuels like hydrogen.

DOE will provide $25 million to each center in the first year of operation and up to $25 million per year for the following four years. Universities, national laboratories, non-profit organizations, and private firms are all eligible to submit proposals for an award to establish and operate a center. The proposal deadline is February 1, 2007, and the awards will be based on evaluation by scientific peer review and announced next summer. The centers are expected to open in 2008 and be fully operational by 2009.




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