UGA scientists are partners in a new $125 million federal bioenergy research center, the U.S. Department of Energy announced in June. The grant funds the partnership of major universities, national laboratories and industry in achieving the scientific breakthroughs that will efficiently—and economically—convert plants into fuels.
The new Bioenergy Science Center is one of three new centers, funded for $375 million, that aim to make cellulosic biofuels cost competitive with gasoline by 2012.
UGA’s portion of the research is funded for $20 million over the next five years.
David Lee, UGA vice president for research, said, “The center builds on the university’s strengths in carbohydrate science and plant and microbial genetics, and is an important step toward making a lasting contribution to the nation’s energy security.”
“This research has the potential to make ethanol a significant replacement for fossil fuels for this country’s future energy needs,” said Regents Professor Alan Darvill, cofounder and director of UGA’s Complex Carbohydrate Research Center and leader of the UGA team.
The BESC researchers will focus on the principal obstacle in converting cellulosic biomass into ethanol: the plants’ resistant cell walls. Darvill explained that plant cell walls evolved as barriers to insects, disease and weather, but they also provide a barrier to breaking the plants down into sugars that can be processed into fuel.
BESC researchers will address the problem by combining two biotechnological approaches. The first focuses on understanding, identifying and then modifying the genes affecting the composition and structure of plant cell walls to develop plants whose cell walls are optimized to convert from biomass to sugars.
The second approach explores how to genetically engineer microorganisms to more efficiently release and ferment the sugars in plants. The goal is to consolidate the multiple steps of biomass processing by using microbes to perform multiple tasks.
Research will target switchgrass and poplar, two plants that hold significant promise as a source for biomass conversion to biofuels because of their broad adaptability and the ease with which they can be grown and harvested. Darvill noted, however, that all plant biomass will benefit from this research.
The BESC brings together some of the best scientists in the country to work on the bioenergy problem, said Darvill. At UGA, he said, “we have a tremendous team of scientists with a true collaborative spirit in place to address one of the nation’s biggest scientific challenges.”
The UGA team draws on scientists from the CCRC and the departments of biochemistry and molecular biology, genetics, plant biology, crop and soil sciences and the Institute of Bioinformatics.