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A Decade of Bioenergy Research

Submitted by on June 2, 2017 – 6:47 pmNo Comment

by Patrick C. Miller (Ethanol Producer Magazine)  The Department of Energy’s three bioenergy research centers have no intention of resting on their accomplishments. —  In the 10 years since the U.S. DOE established three bioenergy research centers with the goal of using science to help America grow its way to energy independence, the amount of knowledge generated toward that end is staggering. The three centers and their partners have published 2,500 papers and generated nearly 600 invention disclosures, an average of five papers per week and five inventions per month over the decade.

GLBRC (Great Lakes Bioenergy Research Center), the BioEnergy Science Center at Oak Ridge, Tennessee, and the Joint BioEnergy Institute in Emeryville, California, were funded by DOE to pursue three primary objectives: develop crops optimized for biofuels production; improve enzymes and microbes for biomass conversion; and engineer pathways for advanced biofuels production.

“We’re funded to produce fuels and chemicals from the corn stalks instead of the corn starch, or from the corn cobs or switchgrass or poplar as woody biomass or leftover wood chips from the forestry industry. It’s very different, new and game-changing.”

Although all of the bioenergy research centers have the same general objectives, they each brought something different to the research table.

“First and foremost, we were looking at drop-in fuels for gasoline, diesel and aviation,” says Blake Simmons, JBEI’s chief science and technology officer and vice president of deconstruction.

“In our case, we arrayed the entire workforce distributed across a number of different institutions around a single point of focus, which was mainly understanding and overcoming the phenomenon of recalcitrance,” says Paul Gilna, BESC director. “The problem with cellulosic biomass sources is that the sugars we seek are deeply complexed in the plant structures.

“There’s an inherent cost associated with trying to get at those structures,” he continues. “Our goal was to study and understand—at a basic research level—the basis of recalcitrance. Having developed that knowledge, we then harnessed it to develop strategies that would get around or eliminate or reduce recalcitrance as an economic barrier to the production of biofuels.”

He (Gilna) explains that BESC’s research shows that other plant cell components—cellulose, pectin, xylan and lignin—contribute to recalcitrance. “When we started out 10 years ago, we all thought it was simply about lignin. We’ve taken that understanding and have been able to show that we can effectively reduce recalcitrance by using the knowledge of the different genetic bases of the phenomenon. We’ve been able to knock down specific gene expressions and develop a plant that yields a higher amount of sugar than its normal counterpart.”

According to Gilna, BESC’s researchers have not only demonstrated this in the lab, but also in the greenhouse and in the field …

Donahue (Tim Donohue, director of the Great Lakes Bioenergy Research Center at the University of Wisconsin in Madison) sites three broad areas of GLBRC’s accomplishments over the past decade. The first is in creating as much value from biomass as possible. “We now have very good systems to dissolve biomass and get all of the sugars,” he says. “We have microbes that can convert more of each of those sugars into fuels than we did when we started. That’s going to provide more value to an industry.”

Second, researchers have demonstrated that they can generate value from lignin. “It turns out that lignin is a polymer of aromatics, and we felt there was a lot of value to be generated from lignin if we could process it into its aromatics,” he explains. “We see a potential to take that lignin and break it down and convert it into aromatic compounds that are precursors for other chemicals that industry needs and provide value to a biorefinery in the future. We’re trying to provide as much value from every gram of carbon as possible in the biomass.” READ MORE

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