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Clyde Thurman

A Bioenergy Ecosystem

BESC partnerships translate R&D into biofuels

Paul Gilna, director of the BioEnergy Science Center at ORNL, is a man on a mission. In fact his entire organization is working under a Department of Energy mandate to focus the world's leading scientific minds and resources on revolutionizing bioenergy production. When the center was created in 2007, this innovative partnership of national laboratories, a private research foundation, universities and industries set out to break down the barriers to developing viable and affordable biofuel alternatives to petroleum-based fuels from plants that do not compete with food crops, such as switchgrass or poplar trees. Four years into a five-year mission, they have already provided considerable evidence that they can achieve what they set out to do.

Breaking down barriers

Gilna cites three main areas where the BESC collaboration has made significant progress. First, the center achieved its primary goal by demonstrating that scientists can genetically modify a biofuel crop, or feedstock, to increase the amount of biofuel it produces. This breakthrough is critical to the future of biofuels because it promises to significantly reduce the cost of the entire biofuel production process.

BESC scientist Jonathan Mielenz works with biomassdegrading microbes that thrive in an oxygen-free environment.
BESC scientist Jonathan Mielenz works with biomassdegrading microbes that thrive in an oxygen-free environment. (Photo: Jason Richards)

The center has also made huge strides toward its goal of developing consolidated bioprocessing microbes—genetically altered microbes, such as yeast, that can digest plant material, extract its sugar content and turn it into ethanol or more advanced biofuels. This research has advanced to the point where one of BESC's industrial partners plans to build a commercial-scale biofuel production facility that employs microbes developed in collaboration with BESC partners.

Finally, the center has collaborated on a regional level with industrial partners to develop what Gilna describes as the beginnings of "a tightly woven bioenergy ecosystem." "We are working with the biotech firm Ceres to develop more efficient feedstocks based on our science. Once regulatory hurdles are satisfied, we can see a day where Ceres will in turn work with Genera, a University of Tennessee bioenergy spinoff company, to grow those feedstocks with the cooperation of a consortium of Tennessee farmers. The crops the farmers produce will be delivered to DuPont Danisco's Vonore, Tennessee, ethanol production facilities to be processed into biofuel." All of this is happening at a demonstration level, but Gilna expects biofuel production in the southeastern U.S. to become a selfsustaining industry. As evidence of this, Gilna notes that DuPont, Inc., has openly discussed plans to construct a cellulosic ethanol plant in the Southeast, possibly in Tennessee.

Although centered in Tennessee, BESC works with scientists at institutions throughout country. However, the regional flavor of the center's efforts to form a "bioenergy ecosystem" is intentional. In fact, there are three regional DOE bioenergy research centers across the U.S. The other two are the DOE Great Lakes Bioenergy Research Center, led by the University of Wisconsin in collaboration with Michigan State University, and the DOE Joint BioEnergy Institute, led by DOE's Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory. Gilna says he is sometimes asked why the DOE needs three different bioenergy centers. "The strength of our complementary approaches lies in their very diversity," he says. "The biofuels industry in the U.S. will be likely be highly regionalized, so what works in the Northwest may be different than what works in the Southeast." As a result, having a geographically diverse set of centers, and therefore a diverse set of approaches to making bioenergy a viable option, increases the likelihood that the U.S. will meet the goal of increasing biofuels production nationwide.

Evolving relationships

BESC's closest relationships are with its partners, which include fifteen federal or academic research institutions, the Samuel Roberts Noble Foundation and three private companies. "Our industrial partners are part of the fabric of the project," Gilna says. "Ceres focuses on the development of biomass feedstocks, ArborGen develops wood-based biomass, and Mascoma is a multifaceted bioenergy company. Their personnel are an integral part of our research and development activities."

Clyde Thurman of Monroe County, Tennessee, and his 76 acres of switchgrass.
Clyde Thurman of Monroe County, Tennessee, and his 76 acres of switchgrass. Thurman was among the first farmers to grow switchgrass as part of the University of Tennessee Biofuels Initiative. (Photo: Ken Goddard, UT Extension)

The center also has a second tier of commercial collaborators, called "affiliates." These companies have a business interest in the center's activities, but they are not directly involved in BESC's research and development program. Affiliates are provided with "additional, though not exclusive" access to information and activities. For example, they are notified of the center's invention disclosures—also available to the public—and they can attend BESC's annual retreat, where the normally widely distributed project staff come together to present and discuss their research.

Gilna notes that BESC's relationships with its research partners have evolved over the last four years. "As our research has progressed, we have often had to adjust how we work with our partners," Gilna says. "For example, we never envisioned we would be ready for field trials of genetically modified feedstocks as quickly as we were. However, we were able to adjust course and accelerate an effort with one of our partners to capitalize on this advance and get the field trials started early." Having a close scientific relationship with bioenergy companies has occasionally led to cooperation between BESC partners and ORNL in areas outside the bioenergy center. Gilna observes that BESC's research partners now have greater awareness of the range of ORNL technologies that could be useful to them.

Publications in scientific journals produced by BESC researchers have also been a catalyst in moving technological advancements from the laboratory to the private sector. Gilna cites several examples of research partners' applying published BESC research directly to their commercial enterprises. "For example," he says, "we made genetic changes to switchgrass that resulted in a 25 percent higher yield of ethanol. Shortly after we published the results of the work in a scientific journal, one of our partners applied the modification to other commercially available strains of switchgrass. They are still in the process of determining whether they will see a similar improvement in ethanol yield, but the main message here is that they had enough confidence in our work to make an investment in this technology based on their association with us."

Future focus

DOE's mandate for the first five years of BESC's life was to understand the chemistry and genetics behind the unwillingness, or recalcitrance, of plants to release their sugars and then to develop ways of modifying plants and microbes to overcome that recalcitrance. Having accomplished the lion's share of what they set out to do, BESC is hoping to receive a five-year extension of its mandate to build on its progress and completely eliminate recalcitrance as a barrier to the economical production of biofuels.

"It's all about reducing the cost of biofuel production to the point that it is competitive with other fuels," Gilna says. "Developing affordable, sustainable biofuels and reducing our dependence on foreign oil will boost our economy and have huge implications for the nation's transportation sector. This is an exciting and noble goal that will truly make a difference, and we believe we know how to get there."—Jim Pearce