GLBRC receives $8 million in Recovery Act funding

Aug. 6, 2009

by Margaret Broeren

The Department of Energy (DOE) Great Lakes Bioenergy Research Center (GLBRC) has received $8.099 million in new funding from the U.S. Department of Energy through the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act to provide crucial support for plant cell wall imaging and sustainability research.

The Office of Biological and Environmental Research (BER) of the U.S. Department of Energy's Office of Science has allocated $4.099 million in Recovery Act funds for GLBRC plant cell wall imaging technology and DOE's Office of Energy Efficiency and Renewable Energy (EERE) is providing $4 million in funding to enhance and accelerate GLBRC sustainability research.

"These funds will be used to provide a new experimental core facility and computational resources to analyze and alter the structure of plant cell walls, the polymer-complex that provides the sugars for cellulosic biofuels," says Tim Donohue, GLBRC director and University of Wisconsin-Madison bacteriology professor. "The new magnetic imaging and associated computational resources will allow new, high-throughput approaches that are crucial for teams across GLBRC."

The new imaging platform provides a 2D NMR "fingerprint" of everything in the wall and will enable the development of chemometric methods which can inform research on optimal feedstock selection, help predict biomass conversion efficiencies, and aid in pretreatment and process optimization, says John Ralph, a UW-Madison biochemistry professor who leads GLBRC's plant biomass research group.

"With this new analytical capacity, 'whole-cell-wall NMR profiling' is intended to become an integral part of the plant and preprocessing workflows," says Ralph.

The 2D NMR fingerprint could ultimately aid analysis of cell wall composition by teams seeking to improve the properties of biomass plants, allow GLBRC to develop new assays for deconstruction of plant cell walls, provide methods for analyzing the composition of feedstocks used as substrates for biological or chemical conversion into fuels, and monitor the cell wall composition of sustainable biomass species from field studies.

"A portion of the funds will also provide new capabilities for existing NMR instruments, which will provide the flexibility to examine the most recalcitrant of samples," says Ralph.

Donohue adds, "While this resource will initially be unique to GLBRC, we are committed to identifying resources to make it available for all the DOE Bioenergy Research Centers and external collaborators. This technology was not only a dream when the application for funding was submitted, it was not even a validated approach when GLBRC started in 2007. The Recovery Act funding allows us to move rapidly and deploy a new, state of the art, approach to the cellulosic biofuels portfolio of GLBRC and other DOE-funded centers."

GLBRC scientists are studying the environmental benefits and consequences of alternative biofuel crops, and DOE EERE funds will be used to provide additional information on carbon cycling, water quality, and greenhouse gas emissions. Funds will also be used to enhance modeling activities, which require massively parallel computing in order to integrate satellite imagery and land use information into mathematical models of biofuel production for the entire U.S. These models, based on experimental field results, will allow researchers and decision makers to ask "what if" questions about different kinds of biofuel crops in different kinds of landscapes.

"Quantitative models, together with the underlying field research, will allow us to design biofuel cropping systems that are both profitable and environmentally sustainable," says Michigan State University crop and soil sciences professor Phil Robertson, who leads GLBRC sustainability research. "We need to ensure that the crops we'll be using for cellulosic energy really contribute to climate stabilization and cleaner air and water, as well as provide biodiversity benefits such as habitat for birds and beneficial insects. Recovery Act funding will allow us to make better decisions sooner."