UT-ORNL Team Wins DOE Bioenergy Center

OAK RIDGE — The University of Tennessee and the Oak Ridge National Laboratory will manage a new $125 million bioenergy research center that will search for ways to produce alternatives to gasoline.

The center, one of three funded by the Department of Energy’s Office of Science from more than 20 proposals, was announced today by DOE.

The Bioenergy Science Center, to be located at the Joint Institute for Biological Sciences (JIBS) at the Oak Ridge National Laboratory, will study how to more efficiently extract cellulose from plants such as switchgrass and poplar trees. Cellulose can be converted to fuels such as biodiesel and ethanol, reducing the demand for gasoline and diesel fuel.

The center will bring together experts in agricultural science, biology, engineering and commercialization to develop quicker and more cost-effective processes for converting plants into fuels.

JIBS is one of a number of joint institutes in areas such as computational sciences, heavy ion research, nanophase materials sciences and neutron sciences. These joint institutes take advantage of the instructional and research strengths offered by the partnership between the university and the Battelle Memorial Institute in managing the national lab.

“The University of Tennessee is excited to be part of the DOE Bioenergy Science Center team,” said UT President John Petersen. “The center’s cutting edge research will leverage the state of Tennessee’s investments in biofuels and make a lasting contribution to the nation’s energy security.”

Tennessee Gov. Phil Bredesen noted that the DOE award comes two weeks after the state legislature approved a $61 million package for bioenergy research at UT and ORNL. The state will fund construction of the Tennessee Biofuels Initiative, a 5 million gallon-per-year pilot plant for demonstration of switchgrass-to-ethanol conversion. The project is based upon research at the DOE Bioenergy Science Center.

“These two investments together position Tennessee and the South to be among the leaders in the emerging field of bioenergy,” Bredesen said.

UT Executive Vice President David Millhorn said the university’s partnership with ORNL was an important factor in gaining one of the three national research centers.

“Our Tennessee Biofuels Initiative provides the translational research capability, and ORNL will provide the fundamental research for converting cellulose into ethanol to help address this critical national need,” Millhorn said.

In announcing the awards, Department of 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.”

In addition to UT and ORNL, the DOE Bioenergy Science Center partners are Dartmouth College, the University of Georgia, the Georgia Institute of Technology, the Samuel Roberts Noble Foundation and the National Renewable Energy Laboratory; 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 the center’s director.

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. I am proud that Oak Ridge will continue to play a leading role in addressing one of the nation’s biggest scientific challenges.”

Researchers will focus on new methods of processing plants into biofuel. 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. To date, no cost-effective bioprocessing methods for cellulose-based bioenergy sources have been developed. 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 now required.

• 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.

For more information on the DOE Bioenergy Science Center, its partners and facilities, see www.bioenergycenter.org.

ORNL is managed by UT-Battelle for the Department of Energy.

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Contacts:

Charles Primm, 865-974-5180, charles.primm@tennessee.edu
Mike Bradley, 865-576-9553, bradleymk@ornl.gov