Alternative fuels from renewable cellulosic biomass— plant stalks, trunks, stems, and leaves—are expected to significantly reduce U.S. dependence on imported oil while enhancing national energy security and decreasing the environmental impacts of energy use. Ethanol and other advanced biofuels from cellulosic biomass are renewable alternatives that could increase domestic production of transportation fuels, revitalize rural economies, and reduce carbon dioxide and pollutant emissions. According to U.S. Secretary of Energy Steven Chu, “Developing the next generation of biofuels is key to our effort to end our dependence on foreign oil and address the climate crisis while creating millions of new jobs that can’t be outsourced.”
In the United States, the Energy Independence and Security Act (EISA) of 2007 is an important driver for the sustainable development of renewable biofuels. As part of EISA, the Renewable Fuel Standard mandates that 36 billion gallons of biofuels are to be produced annually by 2022, of which 16 billion gallons are expected to come from cellulosic feedstocks.
From Biomass to Cellulosic Ethanol. Depicts the process used to convert biomass (plant matter) into cellulosic ethanol and the improvements needed to optimize these processes. (see Biofuels Primer)
Although cellulosic ethanol production has been demonstrated on a pilot level, developing a cost-effective, commercial- scale cellulosic biofuel industry will require transformational science to significantly streamline current production processes. Woodchips, grasses, cornstalks, and other cellulosic biomass are widely abundant but more difficult to break down into sugars than corn grain—the primary source of U.S. ethanol fuel production today. Biological research is key to accelerating the deconstruction of cellulosic biomass into sugars that can be converted into biofuels.
The Department of Energy (DOE) Office of Science continues to play a major role in inspiring, supporting, and guiding the biotechnology revolution over the past 30 years. The DOE Genomic Science program is advancing a new generation of research focused on achieving whole-systems understanding of biology. This program is bringing together scientists in diverse fields to understand the complex biology underlying solutions to DOE missions in energy production, environmental remediation, and climate change science. New interdisciplinary research communities are emerging, as are knowledgebases and scientific and computational resources critical to advancing large-scale, genome-based biology.
To focus the most advanced biotechnology-based resources on the biological challenges of biofuel production, DOE established three Bioenergy Research Centers (BRCs) in September 2007. Each center is pursuing the basic research underlying a range of high-risk, high-return biological solutions for bioenergy applications. Advances resulting from the BRCs will provide the knowledge needed to develop new biobased products, methods, and tools that the emerging biofuel industry can use. The scientific rationale for these centers and for other fundamental genomic research critical to the biofuel industry was established at a DOE workshop on Biomass to Biofuels involving members of the research community.
The ultimate goal for the three DOE Bioenergy Research Centers is to better understand the biological mechanisms underlying biofuel production so that those mechanisms can be redesigned, improved, and used to develop novel, efficient bioenergy strategies that can be replicated on a mass scale. New strategies and findings emanating from the centers’ fundamental research ultimately will benefit all biological investigations and will create the knowledge underlying three grand challenges at the frontiers of biology:
DOE and the USDA began a competitive grant program in 2006 that is committed to fundamental research in biomass genomics, providing the scientific foundation to facilitate use of lignocellulosic materials for bioenergy and biofuels. Since lignocellulosic crop plants are less intensive to produce and can grow on poorer quality land, competition with crops grown for food production is avoided. See current and previous awards.
In 2014, DOE awarded grants for systems biology—driven basic research in three areas of development focused on enabling advanced biofuels production: 1) promising new model organisms relevant to biofuels production, 2) novel microbial functional capabilities and biosynthetic pathways relevant to advanced biofuels production and strategies to overcome associated metabolic challenges resulting from pathway modification, and 3) novel analytical technologies or high-throughput screening approaches. See current awards. See corresponding FOA.
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