$3 million to Support Biofuels Research

U.S. Department of Energy Commits Funding to Research led by Charles Wyman

Charles Wyman headshot

Charles Wyman

RIVERSIDE, Calif. (www.ucr.edu) – The Bourns College of Engineering-Center for Environmental Research and Technology (CE-CERT) is scheduled to receive more than $3 million in funding for biofuels research, the U.S. Department of Energy announced recently.

The funding is the result of Congressional approval for continued funding of the BioEnergy Science Center (BESC) led by Oak Ridge National Laboratory.  BESC is one of three bioenergy research centers established by the DOE’s Office of Science in 2007 to accelerate progress toward a viable biofuels market based on cellulosic feedstocks. CE-CERT has been one of the BESC’s 17 institutional partners since 2007 and will receive $629,000 per year over the next five years to continue its biofuels research as a result of this renewal.

While ethanol can be produced from corn, its use as a fuel source is limited because it is also a food crop and requires considerable energy to produce and harvest. Cellulosic biomass sources such as poplar wood and switchgrass are abundant and renewable because they come from non-food sources and can include plant-based waste product.

The research at CE-CERT is led by Charles Wyman, Ford Motor Company Chair in Environmental Engineering and Professor of Chemical and Environmental Engineering, who leads the Aqueous Processing of Cellulosic Biomass Team at CE-CERT. In 2010, he was named by BiofuelsDigest as one of the Top 100 People in Bioenergy.

“BESC is a great group to work with and provides excellent training for our graduate students as they collaborate with leaders in the field from across the country,” Wyman said.

In 2011, a research team led by Wyman published the paper, “Lignin content in natural Populus variants affects sugar release,” in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences that described results of their work in understanding the chemical factors affecting how sugars are released from fast growing poplar wood that can be used to produce biofuels. Lignin serves as a major roadblock for biofuels production because it forms strong bonds with sugars and interferes with access to these carbohydrates, making it difficult to extract the plant’s sugars contained in cellulose and hemicellulose for conversion to transportation fuels.

“The real driver for bioenergy is how to get sugar as cheaply as possible from these recalcitrant materials,” Wyman said. “We’re looking to identify traits in poplar and switchgrass that will lead to better sugar release.”

“Developing the next generation of American biofuels will enhance our national energy security, expand the domestic biofuels industry, and produce new clean energy jobs. It will help America’s farmers and create vast new opportunities for wealth creation in rural communities,” said Energy Secretary Steven Chu in the DOE announcement of the funding. “By investing in innovative approaches and technologies at our Bioenergy Research Centers, we can continue to move the biofuels industry forward and grow our economy while reducing our reliance on foreign oil.”

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