Don't Smoke That Fuel: ARPA-E funds energy research in tobacco, turpentines, camelina

October 14, 2011 |

Transformative yields for terrestrial plant oils of up to 4,000 gallons per acre are the goal of new research awards from ARPA-E.

In Washington, the Department of Energy’s Advanced Research Projects Agency-Energy (ARPA-E), today announced 60 cutting-edge research projects aimed at dramatically improving how the U.S. produces and uses energy.  10 awards for $36 million went for biofuels-related projects.

ARPA-E is the DOE’s most far-reaching, ambitious R&D program. Modeled after the Defense Department’s Advanced Research Projects Agency, which fostered stealth technology, the internet and the GPS global positioning system (among other successes), ARPA-E aims at high-risk, high-reward transformational technology platforms.

The projects announced this week are for the Plants Engineered to Replace Oil (PETRO). If successful, PETRO will create biofuels from domestic sources such as tobacco and pine trees for half their current cost, making them cost-competitive with fuels from oil.

Specifically, the project focuses on transformation of plant-based oil production, rather than sugar for fermentation, or total biomass for pyrolysis or gasification.

Oilseeds – can’t make ’em fast enough

The limits on oilseed productivity are well understood by anyone who ever sat through a presentation on micro algae, because the potential to produce 3,000-5,000 gallons of oil per acre is universally compared with productivities like 600-800 gallons per acre for palm, 400 gallons per acre for jatropha, 80 gallons per acre for camelina, and 40-60 gallons per acre for soybeans.

Bottom line, it’s tough for the farmer to make a living growing oilseed crops for biofuels, though its easier where it works as rotation crop, such as wheat-camelina or soy-corn, and especially for the temperate plant oils.

Also, generally there’s a theme of researching the possibilities of the turpines, a class of molecules perhaps best known for turpentine, but also the base of C5 (and a lot, lot higher, like C21, or C30) molecules which confer many of the fragrances and favors in foods and perfumes, pine pitch, most of the flavors of beer, not to mention synthetic rubber, steroids, diesel and jet fuel. Terpenoids are the source of cinnamon’s scent, ginger’s bite, and even the dread THC, the psychoactive agreement in marijuana.

Well, you shouldn’t smoke fuel, anyway.

Some of the projects have fairly algae-esque oil production goals. For example, a University of Florida project that, it outlines, could increase oil production to as much as 4,000 gallons per acre from pine trees.

And a lot easier to aggregate than micro algae, you can take that to the bank.

The three bottom lines

In this round, ARPA-E is keying in on a few areas that deserve a note.

1. Improving the efficiency with which plants use carbon. Oil plants are notoriously busy using (or failing to use) carbon in ways other than we would like, do not use light as efficiently as we would like, and devote energy to oil production less efficiently than we would like. The nerve.

Amherst, UCLA, Texas Agrilife Research, the Donald Danforth Center and the Lawrence Berkeley Lab have come up with projects to reengineer crops to enhance carbon uptake, and optimize light utilization. With all the focus on camelina, no surprise that several projects will work on that platform. But a project from Lawrence Berkeley focuses on North America’s original cash crop, tobacco.

2. Getting plants that produce sugars, to directly produce oils. A continuing theme of advanced biofuels research is to get the plant to do more of the processing work while still in the ground, thereby dramatically reducing the cost of post-harvest processing.

In the alcohol-to-jet programs, for example, plants or other carbon sources have to be harvested for their carbon, fermented or otherwise processed into alcohol, then upgraded into fuel oils like kerosene.

In this round of research, Arcadia Biosciences will modify a number of genes involved in oil biosynthesis to induce grasses to produce vegetable oil. A University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign team will engineer sugarcane and sorghum to produce and store oil instead of sugar. Chromatin will lead a team to engineer sweet sorghum to produce up to 20% of its biomass as farnesene, a diesel-esque molecule which will accumulate in the sorghum plants similar to the way in which sugarcane accumulates sugar.

3. Maximizing oil storage in perennial plants and woody biomass.

In this round, a University of Florida project will increase the turpentine storage capacity of the wood and to increase turpentine production from 3% to 20%.

And, the envelope please – the 10 winners

University of Massachusetts, Amherst

Development of a Dedicated, High-Value Biofuels Crop – $1,482,264

The University of Massachusetts, Amherst will develop an improved oilseed crop that uses carbon more efficiently than traditional crops. The plant will incorporate features that significantly improve photosynthesis and also allow the plant to produce useful, high-energy fuel molecules directly within leaves and stems, in addition to seeds. This will allow a substantial increase in production of fuel per acre of planted land.

University of California, Los Angeles

Energy Plant Design – $2,206,614

The University of California, Los Angeles, will re-engineer plants so that they use energy more efficiently. The team will streamline the process by which green plants convert carbon dioxide into sugar or biofuels. This technology could then be applied broadly, for example to crop plants, to improve yields of grain and biomass.

Donald Danforth Plant Science Center

Center for Enhanced Camelina Oil (CECO) – $5,524,832

The team led by the Donald Danforth Plant Science Center will develop an enhanced variety of the oilseed crop Camelina that produces more oil per acre. Camelina will be engineered with several genes that allow the plant to use light more efficiently, increase its carbon uptake, and divert more energy to the production of oil, which is stored in seeds and is convertible to fuels. The goal of this project is to combine all of these genes into one engineered variety of Camelina, and to prepare it for field trials.

Texas Agrilife Research

Synthetic Crop for Direct Biofuel Production through Re- routing the Photosynthesis Intermediates and Engineering Terpenoid Pathways – $1,877,584

Texas A&M University will address a major inefficiency of photosynthesis, the process used by green plants to capture light energy. Specifically, the team will redirect otherwise wasted energy in plants into energy-dense fuel molecules. The fuel will be readily separated from the plant biomass through

Lawrence Berkeley National Lab

Developing Tobacco as a Platform for Foliar Synthesis of High-Density Liquid Biofuels – $4,839,877

The Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory and its team will develop tobacco plants with leaves that contain fuel molecules. The team will engineer tobacco with traits conferring hydrocarbon biosynthesis, enhanced carbon uptake, and optimized light utilization. The tobacco will be grown using advanced cultivation techniques to maximize biomass production.

Arcadia Biosciences Inc.

Vegetative Production of Oil from a C4 Crop – $947,026

Arcadia Biosciences will modify a number of genes involved in oil biosynthesis to induce grasses to produce vegetable oil. Oil is one of the most energy dense forms of stored energy in plants, and it is a liquid that can be extracted readily, separated, and converted into biodiesel fuel. Arcadia’s technology will yield biomass comprised of 20% oil and can be transferred into highly productive energy crops such as sorghum and switchgrass.

University of Illinois

Engineering Hydrocarbon Biosynthesis and Storage Together with Increased Photosynthetic Efficiency into the Saccharinae – $3,250,000

The University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign team will engineer sugarcane and sorghum to produce and store oil, a biodiesel fuel, instead of sugar. The team will optimize the intensity of the leaf color to more efficiently capture and use sunlight, improving energy yields by up to 50% compared to conventional crops. The team will also crossbreed these crops with the energy grass Miscanthus to increase their geographic range of cultivation.

North Carolina State University

Jet Fuel From Camelina Sativa: A Systems Approach – $3,734,939

North Carolina State University will engineer the oilseed crop Camelina with traits that increase the yield per acre of biodiesel. The project incorporates both an alternative way to capture carbon from air and features that allow the plant to accumulate larger quantities of vegetable oil and other fuel molecules in oilseeds. When combined together, the fuel molecules plus vegetable oil isolated from the plant can be converted into a fuel mixture that is comparable to diesel or jet fuel. This variety of Camelina is expected to produce more fuel per acre of land than other conventional biofuel crops.

Chromatin, Inc

Plant-Based Sesquiterpene Biofuels – $5,769,590

Chromatin will lead a team to engineer sweet sorghum, a plant that produces large quantities of sugar and requires less water than most crops, so that it can accumulate the fuel molecule farnesene. Genes from microbes and other plants will be incorporated into sorghum to allow the plant to produce up to 20% of its biomass as farnesene, which can be readily converted into a type of diesel fuel. Farnesene will accumulate in the sorghum plants similar to the way in which sugarcane accumulates sugar.

University of Florida

Commercial Production of Terpene Biofuels in Pine – $6,367,276

The University of Florida project will increase the production of turpentine, a natural liquid biofuel isolated from pine trees. The pine tree developed for this project is designed both to increase the turpentine storage capacity of the wood and to increase turpentine production from 3% to 20%. The fuel produced from these trees would become a sustainable domestic biofuel source able to produce 100 million gallons of fuel per year from less than 25,000 acres of forestland.

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Category: Fuels

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