UW-Madison to receive $125M for bioenergy research center

From the Wisconsin Technology Network link
June 26, 2007

The United States Department of Energy will invest up to $375 million over five years in three new Bioenergy Research Centers, including $125 million for a center led by the University of Wisconsin-Madison, to promote the development of cellulosic ethanol.

The Madison bioenergy research facility, which will be called the DOE Great Lakes Bioenergy Research Center, will operate in collaboration with Michigan State University and be directed by Timothy Donohue, professor of bacteriology at UW-Madison.

The center, which will focus on plant-drived biomass, is part of the broader Wisconsin Bioenergy Initiative.

The state of Wisconsin will allocate $104 million for the center, including $100 million for a bioenergy building on the Madison campus and $4 for new faculty hires.

Gov. Jim Doyle compared the bioenergy research center to another research facility that is being added to the UW-Madison campus.

“This center will be the centerpiece of our state’s efforts to lead the country toward energy independence,” Doyle said in a release, “and just like the Institutes for Discovery, this will be an economic engine that will translate new discoveries into high-paying jobs.”

Cellulosic accelerators

The centers, which also will be located in Oak Ridge, Tenn. and near Berkeley, Calif., are being created to accelerate basic research in the development of cellulosic ethanol and other biofuels. They will feature multidisciplinary teams of scientists, and collaborations of academic, corporate, and national laboratory researchers.

The funding is part of President Bush’s “Twenty in Ten” initiative, which seeks to reduce U.S. gasoline consumption by 20 percent within 10 years through the development of renewable, carbon-neutral energy sources.

Energy Secretary Samuel Bodman said in a release that the centers, which were chosen as part of a competitive review process, will provide the “transformational science” needed to make cellulosic ethanol cost competitive with gasoline by 2012.

Cellulosic ethanol would be made from feedstocks other than corn, and biomass material like agricultural residues, grasses, poplar trees, inedible plants, and non-edible portions of crops.

A major focus of the centers will be to re-engineer biological processes to develop more efficient methods for converting the cellulose in plant material into ethanol or other biofuels.

Madison directive

The centers, located in distinct geographic areas, will use different plants for laboratory research and for improving feedstock crops. According to the DOE’s Office of Science, the Great Lakes Bioenergy Research Center will conduct genomics-based research to remove bottlenecks in the biofuels pipeline, upgrade the procedures for processing plant biomass, and improve the biological and chemical processes used to convert biomass into energy.

Donohue said scientists and engineers will be working on new processes to convert plant material into ethanol and other biofuels or electricity. “We have a lot of existing technology that we can improve on and some we can modify or tweak,” he said. “In about six to 10 years down the road, there will be a whole new group of technologies that will be developed.”

One business collaborator in the Great Lakes Bioenergy Research Center will be Lucigen Corp. of Middleton. In 2006, Lucigen spun off another company, C5-6 Technologies, to commercialize enzymes that have been found to increase yields in the production of ethanol from corn.

David Mead, president and CEO of Lucigen, and John Biondi, president of C5-6 Technologies, said the two sister companies will basically take the same approach to collaborating with the research center that they do in the private sector. Lucigen will develop the gene cloning tools used to discover new types of enzymes from previously inaccessible sources, such as the extreme heat of hot springs, and C5-6 will screen for enzymes that break down biomass into simple sugars that can be fermented into ethanol.

The federal funding for the bioenergy research center “is a pretty exciting development,” Biondi said. “We’re thankful to be part of it with the university.”

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