In search of next-gen bioproducts and fuels, DOE invests $40M in 4 Bioenergy Research Centers

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In Washington, U.S. Secretary of Energy Rick Perry today announced $40 million in Department of Energy awards for the establishment of four DOE Bioenergy Research Centers (BRCs), which will provide the scientific breakthroughs for a new generation of sustainable, cost-effective bioproducts and bioenergy.

The following centers were selected based on an open competition using outside peer review: the Great Lakes Bioenergy Research Center, led by the University of Wisconsin-Madison in partnership with Michigan State University; the Center for Bioenergy Innovation, led by DOE’s Oak Ridge National Laboratory; the Joint BioEnergy Institute, led by DOE’s Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory; and the Center for Advanced Bioenergy and Bioproducts Innovation, led by the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.

The centers—each led by a DOE National Laboratory or a top university—are designed to lay the scientific groundwork for a new bio-based economy that promises to yield a range of important new products and fuels derived directly from nonfood biomass. Initial funding for the four centers will total $40 million for FY 2018, with plans for a total of five years of funding. Specific funding amounts for 2018 and beyond will be finalized as part of future federal budget processes.

“The revolution of modern biology has opened up vast new opportunities for the energy industry to develop and utilize products derived from biomass as a sustainable resource,” said Secretary Perry.  “These centers will accelerate the development of the basic science and technological foundation needed to ensure that American industry and the American public reap the benefits of the new bio-based economy.”

The current awards represent a follow-on phase to the original DOE Bioenergy Research Centers program, established by the Office of Biological and Environmental Research within DOE’s Office of Science in 2007.  The original program consisted of three centers, including those mentioned above led by the University of Wisconsin-Madison in partnership with Michigan State University, Oak Ridge National Laboratory, and Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory.

Over ten years, these three BRCs produced multiple breakthroughs in the form of deepened understanding of sustainable agricultural practices, major reengineering of plant feedstocks, development of new methods of deconstructing feedstocks, and reengineering of microbes for more effective fuel production.  In all, the three original BRCs produced 2,630 peer-reviewed publications, 607 invention disclosures, 378 patent applications, 191 licenses or options, and 92 patents. Through this work, they transferred substantial insight and expertise to industry through cooperation with both large and small companies.

In the next phase, the centers will build on this record of accomplishment and expand from a focus on biofuels to include the development of bio-based chemicals and other bio-based products.  The three are joined by a fourth center, led by the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, with a specialty in the direct production of drop-in fuels and chemicals using plants themselves as sustainable biofactories.

CABBI joins the BRC family

In this newswave, DOE announced the $104 million Center for Advanced Bioenergy and Bioproducts Innovation (CABBI), pending Congressional appropriation, a collaboration between Illinois’ Institute for Sustainability, Energy, and Environment (iSEE) and the Carl R. Woese Institute for Genomic Biology (IGB). CABBI includes 16 partner institutions. Evan H. DeLucia, the G. William Arends Professor of Plant Biology and Baum Family Director of iSEE, will serve as CABBI Director.

CABBI researchers will develop fuels and products by integrating three highly interconnected DOE priority areas:

GROWING THE RIGHT CROPS (Feedstock Development) — Led by Stephen Moose, Professor of Crop Sciences at Illinois, scientists will integrate recent advances in genomics, synthetic biology, and computational biology to increase the value of biomass crops. Feedstock researchers will use the “plants as factories” paradigm, in which biofuels, bioproducts, and foundation molecules for conversion are synthesized directly in plant stems.

TURNING PLANTS INTO FUEL (Conversion) — Led by Huimin Zhao, Steven L. Miller Chair in Chemical Engineering at Illinois, experts will further develop a versatile, automated “biofoundry” for rapidly engineering microbial strains that can efficiently produce diverse, high-value molecules such as biodiesel, organic acids, jet fuels, lubricants, and alcohols. Using the design-build-test-learn framework, research in the Conversion theme will overcome the challenges associated with driving biological systems to produce non-natural compounds.

DETERMINING THE ENVIRONMENTAL AND ECONOMIC BOTTOM LINE (Sustainability) — Led by Madhu Khanna, ACES Distinguished Professor in Environmental Economics in the Department of Agricultural and Consumer Economics at Illinois, researchers will provide an overarching framework for viewing outcomes from the Feedstocks and Conversion themes through an environmental and economic lens. Experts will design a closed-loop and integrated research program for CABBI.

Partner institutions include Brookhaven (N.Y.) National Laboratory; the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory’s Joint Genome Institute in Berkeley, Calif; the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Agricultural Research Service in Houma, La., and Peoria, Ill.; Iowa State University; Princeton University; Mississippi State University; the University of California-Berkeley; West Virginia University; Boston University; the University of Wisconsin-Madison; Colorado State University; the University of Idaho; the University of Florida; the University of Nebraska; the Institute for Systems Biology in Seattle; and the HudsonAlpha Institute for Biotechnology in Huntsville, Ala.

From BESC to CBI

The Center for Bioenergy Innovation, led by Oak Ridge National Laboratory, is one of four bioenergy centers chosen by DOE to advance a new biobased economy with the production of fuels and other products directly from nonfood biomass. In many ways, it is the successor to the ORNL-led BioEnergy Science Center (BESC), which demonstrated scientific breakthroughs in its mission to overcome the natural resistance of plants to being broken down and converted into useful bioproducts.

CBI will pursue a host of new technologies to alleviate critical cost barriers to sustainable, economically viable production of biobased products and advanced biofuels. The center will focus on creating robust high-yielding feedstock plants, using genetic studies to accelerate the domestication of perennial plants. CBI will create biocatalytic methods for high-yield production of advanced biofuels that can be blended with existing transportation fuels. Researchers will also study ways to develop valuable byproducts from lignin left over after biomass processing.

CBI’s proposal includes partners from University of Georgia, National Renewable Energy Laboratory, Dartmouth College, GreenWood Resources, Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Pennsylvania State University, Samuel Roberts Noble Foundation, University of California-Riverside, University of Colorado-Boulder, University of North Texas, University of Tennessee, University of Wisconsin-Madison, Colorado State University and West Virginia University.

Reaction from the stakeholders

“Collaboration has been at the core of GLBRC’s efforts from Day One, and it will continue to drive the goals of this new center and help us realize our vision of developing bio-based sources of fuels and chemicals,” says Tim Donohue, GLBRC director and UW–Madison professor of bacteriology.

“We are in a unique position to not only address a major societal challenge, but to create new revenue sources and economic opportunities for farmers, rural communities and a new generation of bio-refineries, as well as to create new, locally produced and cost-effective products for consumers.”

“Transforming the results of scientific research into new commercial products is a complex process,” says Marsha

Mailick, UW–Madison vice chancellor for research and graduate education. “But when universities and companies work in tandem to push the frontiers of knowledge, they become a powerful engine for innovation and economic growth. GLBRC is an excellent example of university researchers and industry working closely together to generate new knowledge and maximize the social and economic benefits of these new ideas.”

“The GLBRC is prolific in its partnership, disclosing dozens of new technologies to the Wisconsin Alumni Research Foundation (WARF) over the last few years,” says Erik Iverson, managing director of WARF. “These inventions have resulted in several licensing agreements. We are delighted this federal grant will continue this cycle of innovation.”

“GLBRC’s selection demonstrates UW–Madison’s continued excellence in clean energy research,” says UW–Madison

Chancellor Rebecca Blank. “Our broad expertise in areas such as plant sciences, microbiology, economics and engineering is enabling the development of new and innovative technologies that can bring about American energy sustainability while also strengthening the economy right here at home.”

“DOE’s bioenergy research centers offer an effective model for accelerating significant scientific innovation in the development of advanced bioproducts and biofuels from cellulosic sources for ultimately accelerating the pathway to improving and scaling up biofuel production processes,” said Moe Khaleel, ORNL associate laboratory director for Energy and Environmental Sciences.

“This new center builds on the success of BESC in applying scientific breakthroughs to the nation’s energy challenges,” said ORNL Director Thomas Zacharia. “We have a culture of bringing together world-leading experts to solve particularly important and difficult problems.

“Our team of leading researchers is excited to use new approaches in biology to address the basic research challenges in developing real-world applications in the future sustainable bioeconomy,” said CBI Chief Executive Officer Gerald Tuskan. Tuskan was a member of the team that discovered a breakthrough poplar gene that makes it easier for bioconversion — GreenWood Resources licensed it.

“As the United States seeks energy independence, we need to look at the most efficient ways to grow, transform, and market biofuels,” DeLucia said. “This grant is a game-changer, and CABBI will be at the forefront as we press toward a new bio-based economy. Our Center’s holistic approach will generate new products directly from biomass, reducing our nation’s dependence on fossil fuels and making us more secure.”

The Feedstocks theme will be at the cutting edge of bioenergy crop production, said Kimberlee K. Kidwell, Dean of the College of Agricultural, Consumer and Environmental Sciences (ACES) at Illinois, which is providing significant field space, lab space, and researchers for CABBI. “We have truly set our sights on the future of agriculture, from the genomic level to crops in the field to final products that will play a significant role in our nation’s energy profile,” Kidwell said.

Peter Schiffer, Vice Chancellor for Research at Illinois, noted that iSEE was founded to facilitate exactly these kinds of interdisciplinary research projects. “We are deliberately building the infrastructure that will enable our researchers to do what they do best: solve complex problems that cross disciplinary boundaries,” he said. “iSEE was launched to conduct actionable research that addresses some of the biggest challenges in energy and the environment, and the CABBI team is noteworthy for its strengths in agriculture, engineering, genomics, biology, chemistry, economics, and more.”

The BRC backstories

Over GLBRC’s 10-year history, it has built academic and industrial partnerships that have yielded more than 1,000 scientific publications, 160 patent applications, 80 licenses or options, and five start-up companies. Additional university collaborators include the University of British Columbia, Texas A&M University and Michigan Technological University. Building on past accomplishments, GLBRC’s next phase will focus on producing dedicated bioenergy crops on non-agricultural lands, maximizing the production of specialty fuels and bioproducts from those crops, and building a comprehensive understanding of the fi eld-to-product pipeline to maximize the sustainability and economic benefits offered by a future cellulosic bio-industry. Together, these efforts have the potential to spur a new bio-refinery industry equipped to create valuable products from as much of a crop’s biomass as possible.

During its 10 years of research led by ORNL, BESC scientists targeted methods to more easily convert biomass into biofuels by developing better plants, microbes and enzymes, and improved technologies to characterize and pretreat biomass. BESC and its 17 partner institutions produced more than 929 peer-reviewed publications, 190 invention disclosures, 60 patent applications, 21 licenses, and received 22,000 citations of its publications.

The Bottom Line

Couple of points.

First, note the intriguing addition of the University of Illinois for “direct production of drop-in fuels and chemicals using plants themselves as sustainable biofactories” – we’ll stand by for more on what that means.

Secondly, let’s note the transition from BESC to CBI — the latter will proceed under the leadership of Gerald Tuskan, after 10 years of the Paul Gilna-led BESC,

However, one caveat. The funding here is for just one year of these BRCs. The Trump budget slashes energy research and these centers will have to compete with all the piggies at the trough in the next four budget seasons.