A Decade of Bioenergy Research

The Department of Energy’s three bioenergy research centers have no intention of resting on their accomplishments. This feature article appears in the June print edition of Ethanol Producer Magazine.
By Patrick C. Miller | May 23, 2017

In the 10 years since the U.S. DOE established three bioenergy research centers with the goal of using science to help America grow its way to energy independence, the amount of knowledge generated toward that end is staggering. The three centers and their partners have published 2,500 papers and generated nearly 600 invention disclosures, an average of five papers per week and five inventions per month over the decade.

“That’s a rate of knowledge production that outstrips anything I thought we’d achieve when we were funded,” says Tim Donohue, director of the Great Lakes Bioenergy Research Center at the University of Wisconsin in Madison.

GLBRC, the BioEnergy Science Center at Oak Ridge, Tennessee, and the Joint BioEnergy Institute in Emeryville, California, were funded by DOE to pursue three primary objectives: develop crops optimized for biofuels production; improve enzymes and microbes for biomass conversion; and engineer pathways for advanced biofuels production.

The research centers combined have produced 365 patent applications, 89 patents, 175 licenses and options, and multiple spin-off businesses, indicating that the research has practical applications leading to commercialization. Donahue points out that that some of the “George Jetson-type technology” the bioenergy centers pioneered has already moved from the realm of science fiction into reality. “We’re not into starch ethanol or the starch-based fuel business,” Donahue explains. “We’re funded to produce fuels and chemicals from the corn stalks instead of the corn starch, or from the corn cobs or switchgrass or poplar as woody biomass or leftover wood chips from the forestry industry. It’s very different, new and game-changing.”

Although all of the bioenergy research centers have the same general objectives, they each brought something different to the research table.

“First and foremost, we were looking at drop-in fuels for gasoline, diesel and aviation,” says Blake Simmons, JBEI’s chief science and technology officer and vice president of deconstruction. “We weren’t really focused on ethanol production. We knew that a lot of other teams were going to be proposing ethanol. We thought we’d be complementary from the portfolio perspective and intriguing to the oil and gas industry.”

While the other centers have partners and collaborations with research entities nationally and internationally, Simmons notes that the concept for JBEI—led by DOE’s Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory—was different.

“We had this vision of an integrated research institute that would be centralized in one facility that would colocate folks from all different institutes,” he explains. “That’s a pretty big departure from the norm and what the national labs do.”

JBEI’s other national laboratory partners include the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory, the Pacific Northwest National Laboratory and the Sandia National Laboratory. Its academic research partners are the University of California at Berkeley and Davis and the Carnegie Institution for Science.

Led by DOE’s Oak Ridge National Laboratory, BESC brought together a large consortium with 18 different research partners from around the country, each offering  different capabilities in terms of intellectual resources and lab research capabilities to focus on generating biofuels from cellulosic sources.

“In our case, we arrayed the entire workforce distributed across a number of different institutions around a single point of focus, which was mainly understanding and overcoming the phenomenon of recalcitrance,” says Paul Gilna, BESC director. “The problem with cellulosic biomass sources is that the sugars we seek are deeply complexed in the plant structures.

“There’s an inherent cost associated with trying to get at those structures,” he continues. “Our goal was to study and understand—at a basic research level—the basis of recalcitrance. Having developed that knowledge, we then harnessed it to develop strategies that would get around or eliminate or reduce recalcitrance as an economic barrier to the production of biofuels.”

The GLBRC, housed within the Wisconsin Energy Institute, works in partnership with Michigan State University and collaborates academically with the University of British Columbia in Canada and Texas A&M University. It supports nearly 400 researchers, students and staff in disciplines ranging from microbiology to economics to plant biology and engineering.

Placing an emphasis on collaboration and cooperation with a wide variety of public and private research partners—as well as the other two bioenergy research centers—helps GLBRC support its research goals.

“I think we’ve benefitted from the ability to do this because we’ve been able to make advances that only occur when people who work in different disciplines work in a collaborative way instead of having people work only in their comfort zone or their area of main expertise,” Donahue notes.

All three bioenergy research centers can point to significant accomplishments in the renewable energy field over the past 10 years—even as the needs have changed and evolved.

“In the world of biomass and plant science, we have deepened the fundamental understanding of recalcitrance,” Gilna says. “We’ve been able to pin it to a number of different systems in plant structure and broadened the scientific community’s understanding of its basis.”

He explains that BESC’s research shows that other plant cell components—cellulose, pectin, xylan and lignin—contribute to recalcitrance. “When we started out 10 years ago, we all thought it was simply about lignin. We’ve taken that understanding and have been able to show that we can effectively reduce recalcitrance by using the knowledge of the different genetic bases of the phenomenon. We’ve been able to knock down specific gene expressions and develop a plant that yields a higher amount of sugar than its normal counterpart.”

According to Gilna, BESC’s researchers have not only demonstrated this in the lab, but also in the greenhouse and in the field where the results have shown that the plant traits are held for a number of years.

Donahue sites three broad areas of GLBRC’s accomplishments over the past decade. The first is in creating as much value from biomass as possible. “We now have very good systems to dissolve biomass and get all of the sugars,” he says. “We have microbes that can convert more of each of those sugars into fuels than we did when we started. That’s going to provide more value to an industry.”

Second, researchers have demonstrated that they can generate value from lignin. “It turns out that lignin is a polymer of aromatics, and we felt there was a lot of value to be generated from lignin if we could process it into its aromatics,” he explains. “We see a potential to take that lignin and break it down and convert it into aromatic compounds that are precursors for other chemicals that industry needs and provide value to a biorefinery in the future. We’re trying to provide as much value from every gram of carbon as possible in the biomass.”

Finally, Donahue says the center’s research indicates that there are better uses for the byproducts of the process, products currently being used to generate electricity. “We think there are more valuable things to produce from that left over carbon than natural gas,” he says. “We’re very excited about where we want to go in the future to produce other products.”

Simmons says JBEI’s researchers pursued different approaches to feedstocks and deconstruction technology, developments he says are both outside the norm and scientifically compelling. “JBEI has pioneered the development of advanced routes to the production of fuels from sugars for use in blendstocks by using synthetic biology,” he notes. “We’ve raised the bar for what can be achieved and expanded the tool box beyond what we originally envisioned to control and manipulate cell wall composition to improve bioenergy traits.”

In the area of ethanol, Simmons says, “It’s axiomatic for us that cellulosic ethanol has to succeed.” JBEI’s goal isn’t to pick technology winners and losers, but to create a suite of technologies that enable the marketplace to choose the best options. “We are creating a portfolio that the entire bioenergy industry can benefit from,” Simmons says. “The same tools and same approaches that we’re using to optimize energy production can be used by the ethanol industry. We embrace the cellulosic ethanol industry and want it to succeed.” 

JBEI has also developed a biomass conversion technology that Simmons says is feedstock agnostic and can be used to enhance process integration and lower costs.

Optimistic Outlook
The DOE bioenergy research centers came into existence in 2007 during the administration of President George W. Bush at a time when gasoline prices were on the rise and the need for renewable domestic energy sources was considered a national priority. Although the shale oil revolution and OPEC overproduction helped bring down the cost of gasoline, the bioenergy research centers continued to receive bipartisan support during President Barack Obama’s administration.

With the fossil-fuel-friendly Trump administration now in charge, there are concerns about the future with funding renewal coming up next year. However, representatives of all three centers are confident that what they’ve accomplished in the past 10 years demonstrates the value their research provides and puts the nation on a path to a cleaner, more secure energy future.

“We do what taxpayers want us to do, but we listen to industry and take their input because they have boots on the ground, steel in the ground and they know what the real challenges are,” Donahue says. “We have research approaches that are best suited for basic science or a university national lab environment because they are high risk and potentially high payoff—not the kind of thing that typically goes on in industry.”

Simmons believes there’s still much to be done in accomplishing the goals DOE originally set for the centers. “For us, demonstrating a path to affordability and scalability still needs to be there,” he notes. “There needs to be a competitive business model to produce chemicals and fuels and to convert biomass into various compounds. One of the biggest challenges and biggest opportunities is to convert biomass into renewable fuels and chemicals without throwing away a huge part of the waste stream.”

Gilna believes the research conducted at BESC is important on several levels. “To no small extent, we’ve shown at the proof-of-principle level and—in some cases all the way out to commercial events—that we can reduce the cost of producing a biofuel from plant sources that don’t compete for food production.”

Another consideration Gilna emphasizes is the effect the three centers have had on the state of bioenergy research itself. “The impact of the centers has been as much about how we’ve done the work as what we’ve managed to do,” Gilna says. “It’s had an accelerative effect on science and developed a culture that values this approach with collaborative science.”

Donahue envisions an exciting future for bioenergy as a result of the DOE research centers’ work. “What if we could empower society to have these integrated biorefineries that make fuels and chemicals just like a petroleum refinery does now?” he asks. “The economics of making different compounds from plant feedstocks are very different than economics of making a single fuel like ethanol, because you get to sell the different products at different price points. The profit margin for the industry would be very different.”

Where the program started and where it ends might be different, but Simmons is optimistic about its future. “The next 10 years are going to be great for bioenergy, although maybe different from what DOE originally conceived,” he says. “There’s still a lot of merit to the concept of a bioeconomy, and we’re still very bullish on the outcome.”

Author: Patrick C. Miller
BBI International Staff Writer