News Release: Bioenergy Science Center to Develop Better Ways of Making Fuel From Plants

June 26, 2007 | By George Douglas | Contact media relations

A team that includes the National Renewable Energy Laboratory (NREL) has won a bid from the Department of Energy for a $125 million bioenergy research center that will seek new ways to produce biofuels.

Oak Ridge National Laboratory (ORNL) in Oak Ridge, Tenn., will lead the team.  Funded by the Department of Energy's Office of Science, the Bioenergy Science Center will be located on the ORNL campus in a new facility funded by the state of Tennessee and owned by the University of Tennessee. The center, one of three funded from more than 20 proposals, will employ the interdisciplinary expertise of the team's partners in biology, engineering and agricultural science  and commercialization to develop processes for converting plants including switchgrass and poplar trees into fuels.

In announcing the awards, Energy Secretary Samuel Bodman said, "These centers will provide the transformational science needed for bioenergy breakthroughs to advance President Bush's goal of making cellulosic ethanol cost-competitive with gasoline by 2012, and assist in reducing America's gasoline consumption by 20 percent in 10 years. The collaborations of academic, corporate, and national laboratory researchers represented by these centers are truly impressive and I am very encouraged by the potential they hold for advancing America's energy security." The other two centers for bioenergy research announced today are the DOE Great Lakes Bioenergy Research Center and the DOE Joint Bioenergy Institute.

In addition to NREL and ORNL, the DOE Bioenergy Science Center partners are the University of Tennessee, Dartmouth College, the University of Georgia, the Georgia Institute of Technology, the Samuel Roberts Noble Foundation, and companies ArborGen in Summerville, S.C., Diversa (now Verenium Corp.) in San Diego, Calif., and Mascoma in Cambridge, Mass. The team also includes seven individual researchers from across the country. ORNL's Martin Keller will serve as director for the center.

ORNL Director Jeff Wadsworth said the DOE project "will be a critical part of America's efforts over the next decade to develop alternatives to fossil fuels."

 "What we learn through the Bioenergy Science Center will ensure the sustainability of the rapidly growing biofuels industry," NREL Associate Director Ray Stults said. "This project brings together the right people and institutions to help us figure out how to make more fuel more economically using less land, less water and less energy."

The ORNL-led project will focus on new methods of processing plants into biofuels.  The strategy involves breaking down into simple sugars the lattice of cellulose, hemicellulose and lignin that makes plant cell walls resistant to the stress of weather, insects and disease. These sugars can then be processed into fuel.

NREL is a world leader in the study of enzymes that break down cellulose and hemicellulose and has years of experience in converting the non-edible parts for plants into biofuels. NREL also is home to a facilities for producing biofuels both using heat (thermochemically) and organisms (biochemically).

The DOE Bioenergy Science Center will focus on achieving the specific goals of:

* Modifying plant cell walls to reduce their resistance to breakdown, with a focus on the poplar tree and switchgrass, a native grass that can be easily grown in most of the U.S. Such modification would decrease or eliminate the need for costly chemical pretreatments.

* Consolidated bioprocessing, which involves the use of a single microorganism or group of organisms to break down plant matter through a one-step conversion process of biomass into biofuels.

NREL is the U.S. Department of Energy's primary national laboratory for renewable energy and energy efficiency research and development. NREL is operated for DOE by Midwest Research Institute and Battelle.