Tuesday, June 26, 2007

UC Davis Is Partner in New $125 Million Federal Bioenergy Research Center

UC Davis Is Partner in New $125 Million Federal Bioenergy Research Center

June 26, 2007

UC Davis researchers who are experts at turning plants into energy for transportation, buildings and industry will be partners in a new $125 million federal bioenergy research center, the U.S. Department of Energy announced this morning.

The funds will establish and support the partnership of three national laboratories and three research universities in Northern California, including UC Davis, to be known as the federal Energy Department's Joint BioEnergy Institute (JBEI, pronounced "jay-bay").

Research at the Northern California JBEI will focus on biofuels -- liquid fuels derived from the solar energy stored in plant matter. UC Davis' work will be based in the Plant Genomics Program and the UC Davis Department of Biological and Agricultural Engineering, deciphering the structure of the plant cell walls being converted to fuels and of the microbes doing the converting.

The chief JBEI researcher at UC Davis is Pamela Ronald, a professor of plant pathology and chair of the Plant Genomics Program. Ronald is an expert on the genome of rice. "We will be studying rice as a model grass crop, as well another plant model, Arabidopsis, to understand exactly how the cell wall is constructed," Ronald said. Other UC Davis scientists will be looking for microbes that are particularly adept at degrading those cell walls, which is a key step in the biofuels production process.

Of the $125 million, about $5 million will come to UC Davis, Ronald said.

The JBEI partners are UC Davis, UC Berkeley, Stanford University, the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory (Berkeley Lab), Sandia National Laboratories (Sandia) and the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory (LLNL). Start-up leadership for the project will come from the Berkeley Lab.

The energy department today also announced two other national bioenergy research centers: the DOE BioEnergy Research Center, led by the Oak Ridge National Laboratory in Oak Ridge, Tenn., and the DOE Great Lakes Bioenergy Research Center, led by the University of Wisconsin-Madison, in close collaboration with Michigan State University.

"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," said Energy Secretary Samuel Bodman. "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 selection of the DOE JBEI is a major vote of confidence in the Bay Area's growing leadership in the national effort to develop new and cleaner sources of renewable energy," said Jay Keasling, director of Berkeley Lab's Physical Biosciences Division and a UC Berkeley professor of chemical engineering, who will be the chief executive officer for Northern California's new bioenergy research institute.
Potential of Biofuels

Scientific studies have consistently ranked biofuels among the top candidates for meeting large-scale energy needs, particularly in the transportation sector. However, the commercial-scale production of clean, efficient, cost-effective biofuels will require technology-transforming scientific breakthroughs.

Researchers at the JBEI intend to meet this challenge through the conversion of lignocellulosic biomass into biofuels. Lignocelluose, the most abundant organic material on the planet, is a mix of complex sugars and lignin that gives strength and structure to plant cell walls. By extracting simple fermentable sugars from lignocellulose and producing biofuels from those sugars, the potential of the most energy-efficient and environmentally benign fuel crops can be realized.

"The DOE JBEI will be a center of intellectual thought and provide energy research leadership designed to meet its program objectives quickly and effectively," said Graham Fleming, deputy director of Berkeley Lab.
Bioenergy at UC Davis

UC Davis has a long history of research on the development of energy from biomass. More than 100 faculty work in the field:

* The campus is home to the California Biomass Collaborative, directed by Professor Bryan Jenkins.
* The Plant Genomics Program has expertise in diverse aspects of plant genomics and leading NSF-funded programs in genetic engineering, breeding and genomics of the grass species that are models for key bioenergy crops.
* The Biomass and Bioenvironmental Engineering Laboratories in the Department of Biological and Agricultural Engineering study the thermochemical and biochemical biomass conversion for power, heat, fuels, chemicals and other products. Research is also conducted on plant harvesting systems and crop processing, transportation and storage.

The DOE JBEI Approach

The Joint BioEnergy Institute researchers will tackle key scientific problems that currently hinder the cost-effective conversion of lignocellulose into biofuels and other important chemicals. They will also develop the tools and infrastructure to accelerate future biofuel research and production efforts, and help transition new technologies into the commercial sector. The goal of the JBEI is to achieve measurable success within the next five years.

"The DOE JBEI will be organized like a biotech startup company, with very focused research objectives, and a structure to enable it to quickly pursue promising scientific and technological developments," said Keasling. "In addition, the DOE JBEI will seek collaborations with companies that have relevant scientific and market capabilities in energy, agribusiness, and biotechnology."

The Joint BioEnergy Institute will feature four interdependent science and technology divisions:

* Feedstocks, aimed at improving plants that serve as the raw materials for ethanol and the next generation of biofuels;
* Deconstruction, aimed at investigating the molecular mechanisms behind the breakdown of lignocellulose into fermentable sugars;
* Fuels Synthesis, in which microbes that can efficiently convert sugar into biofuels will be engineered; and
* Cross-cutting Technologies, which will be dedicated to the development and optimization of enabling technologies that support and integrate the institute's research.

Media contact(s):
• Sylvia Wright, UC Davis News Service, (530) 752-7704, swright@ucdavis.edu

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