Category: biofuels

New genetics research: direct conversion of biomass

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Transporting_Miscanthus_BalesMore potentially transformative new research from the department of genetics, this time in the realm of transportation fuels. For sometime now, biofuels have held great promise - and have been the focus of great controversy. But the economics of the conversion process of grasses to fuels may have finally seen its last barrier fall:

Pre-treatment of the biomass feedstock—non-food crops such as switchgrass and miscanthus—is the step of breaking down plant cell walls before fermentation into ethanol. This pre-treatment step has long been the economic bottleneck hindering fuel production from lignocellulosic biomass feedstocks.

Janet Westpheling, a professor in the Franklin College of Arts and Sciences department of genetics, and her team of researchers—all members of U.S. Department of Energy-funded BioEnergy Science Center in which UGA is a key partner—succeeded in genetically engineering the organism C. bescii to deconstruct un-pretreated plant biomass.

"Given a choice between teaching an organism how to deconstruct biomass or teaching it how to make ethanol, the more difficult part is deconstructing biomass," said Westpheling, who spent two and a half years developing genetic methods for manipulating the C. bescii bacterium to make the current work possible.

The UGA research group engineered a synthetic pathway into the organism, introducing genes from other anaerobic bacterium that produce ethanol, and constructed a pathway in the organism to produce ethanol directly.

"Now, without any pretreatment, we can simply take switchgrass, grind it up, add a low-cost, minimal salts medium and get ethanol out the other end," Westpheling said. "This is the first step toward an industrial process that is economically feasible."

Emphasis mine. With no pre-treatment and the ability of microbe to transform the feedstock into ethanol (and other, higher-energy-yield fuels), this process is ready for industrial scale up. Westpheling explained how biofuels are already the standard in Brazil. Is the U.S. on the verge of a transformative fuel moment?

Image: Bales of miscanthus being transported in the U.K., courtesy of Wikimedia Commons. Miscanthus and switchgrass are the best biofuel feedstock because of the high tons-per-acre yield.

Discovery may create path to fuel from CO2

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arrow-to- blue skyWe have only begun to reckon with the growing inventory of atmospheric carbon dioxide and its effects on the planet. Up until now, most of that has taken the shape of wondering how to reduce the production of CO2, and the warming that follows. But Franklin researchers in the Bioenergy Systems Research Institute have published new work that may help turn CO2 into useful industrial products. Even fuel

researchers at the University of Georgia have found a way to transform the carbon dioxide trapped in the atmosphere into useful industrial products. Their discovery may soon lead to the creation of biofuels made directly from the carbon dioxide in the air that is responsible for trapping the sun's rays and raising global temperatures.

"Basically, what we have done is create a microorganism that does with carbon dioxide exactly what plants do-absorb it and generate something useful," said Michael Adams, member of UGA's Bioenergy Systems Research Institute, Georgia Power professor of biotechnology and Distinguished Research Professor of biochemistry and molecular biology in the Franklin College of Arts and Sciences.

This could be an interesting turning point, to say the least. Especially the re-thinking of our stance on photosynthesis:

During the process of photosynthesis, plants use sunlight to transform water and carbon dioxide into sugars that the plants use for energy, much like humans burn calories from food.

New Plant structure may improve biofuel processing

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Mohnen-Debra in the labGreat new work from Debra Mohnen and Li Tan in the BioEnergy Science Center:

When Li Tan approached his colleagues at the University of Georgia with some unusual data he had collected, they initially seemed convinced that his experiment had become contaminated; what he was seeing simply didn’t make any sense.

The biofuels equation: public opinion

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From time to time we've mentioned the long-term investments at UGA in people and research on the issue of developing renewable energy sources. The university has cultivated a wide range of expertise on the subject that goes back decades. And all of that research on everything from fermentation of sugars in plant lignin to biodiesel and drought resistant strains of switchgrass would not be complete without also looking at public support for such efforts:

The Southeastern U.S. is poised to become a major producer of bioenergy, and a wide range of bioenergy technologies are now in various stages of development in the region. Will residents support the new ventures? Who will grow the biomass? Will those in established industries fight against it? These are but a few of the critical questions that citizens, policymakers and investors must answer if bioenergy is to become a viable alternative to fossil fuels.

Now, researchers from the University of Georgia and the U.S. Forest Service are conducting studies in locations throughout the biomass-rich Southeast to find answers to these questions and more. They hope their unique method of investigation, using a mix of complementary ethnographic methods, will provide a detailed understanding of public opinion about bioenergy while also providing policymakers and business owners with the information they need to make sustainable energy production thrive in their communities.

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"A big part of this kind of research is to listen to as many perspectives as possible," said Peter Brosius, professor of anthropology in the Franklin College of Arts and Sciences, director of the Center for Integrative Conservation Research and co-investigator in the study. "From there you begin to see patterns emerge."

The Center of Integrative Conservation Research is another of the visionary initiatives designed to bring together and leverage faculty expertise and energy in the direction of solutions to urgent problems. Public buy-in is crucial if we are to move toward the reality of biofuels as a transportation fuel alternative. Let's hope that this study and related efforts serve multiple purposes that include moving more of the public toward support for comprehensive conservation efforts.

Scientists to speak at SEC renewable energy symposium

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A three-day SEC-sponsored event in February to discuss the future of renewable energy will feature two Franklin researchers with wide experience in our region's quest for renewable fuels:

The SEC Symposium theme, “Impact of the Southeast in the World’s Renewable Energy Future,” will explore the spectrum of renewable energy technologies, including bioenergy, solar, wind, wave/flow and nuclear. 

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Researchers from all 14 member schools will speak in 11 sessions moderated by UGA faculty, most of whom are members of UGA’s Bioenergy Systems Research Institute. UGA will be represented by Joy Doran-Peterson, associate professor of microbiology and director of UGA’s Biomanufacturing and Bioprocessing Program, and C.J. Tsai, Georgia Research Alliance Eminent Scholar and professor in the Warnell School of Forestry and Natural Resources and the department of genetics in the Franklin College of Arts and Sciences. Both are members of BSRI.

 

Peterson’s presentation, “Biomanufacturing and Bioprocessing: The Missing Link for the Biotechnology and Biofuels Industry,” is part of a session that addresses the growing need for alternative energy workforce development and outreach in K-12 programs and centers of higher education.

Tsai’s presentation, “Bioenergy Targets in Poplar Improvement,” will focus on her research into the use of woody biomass as a source of biofuel.

Microbes move researchers one step closer to biofuels from biomass

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We mention this periodically and should be gladdened at every occasion. University researchers and scientists from all over campus, from engineering to genetics, have been working on various aspects of creating renewable fuels for decades. Now, one group of UGA researchers has moved closer to producing biofuels from biomass, in this case by focusing on microbes in the fermentation process.

The single most important barrier to the use of lignocellulosic biomass such as switchgrass, populous, sorghum and miscanthus for production of biofuels is the resistant nature of the biomass itself. The problem lies in the conversion or degradation of complex biomass to make products of interest.

New research from scientists at the University of Georgia who are members of Department of Energy's BioEnergy Science Center (BESC) provides a genetic method for manipulating a group of organisms, called Caldicellulosiruptor, that have the ability to use biomass directly at temperatures over 160 Fahrenheit. The ability to modify the microbes to make the needed fuel products is a required first step for modern industrial fermentations. This allows researchers to combine the natural ability to consume renewable plant materials with an altered improved ability to make what is needed.

"The most formidable barrier to the use of biomass, such as switchgrass, to biofuels is the ability to break down the biomass. Plants have evolved over millions of years to resist degradation by microbes, and that is exactly what we want to do," said Janet Westpheling, a microbial geneticist in the department of genetics in the UGA Franklin College of Arts and Sciences and a scientist of BESC. "The ability to manipulate the genetics of organisms that can use biomass directly is essential to making them useful. We began with a group of bacteria that can use biomass for growth and will use genetics to teach them to make ethanol."

Franklin joint-appointment faculty receive $2 million for biofuel development

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Faculty appointments that facilitate collaborations across the UGA campus continue to pay off:

with the help of grants from the U.S. Departments of Agriculture and Energy, University of Georgia professors Chung-Jui Tsai and Andrew Paterson are conducting fundamental research to better understand the plants that may one day produce the fuel that powers our vehicles and homes.

Tsai, a Georgia Research Alliance Eminent Scholar and professor in the Warnell School of Forestry and Natural Resources and the Franklin College of Arts and Sciences, received $1.496 million to study the importance of plant proteins called tubulin, which play critical roles in many basic plant functions.

Genetics a key to better biofuels

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In the public realm at least, biofuels have been on a bit of a roller coaster ride over the last 12-15 years, as their promise becomes mired in politics and regional agriculture issues. But in research labs across the country and at UGA, scientists have held steady.

A newly published genetic sequence and map of foxtail millet, a close relative of switchgrass and an important food crop in Asia, is giving scientists working to increase biofuel and crop yields a powerful new tool.

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Lead author Jeffrey Bennetzen, Giles Professor and Georgia Research Alliance Eminent Scholar of genetics in the UGA Franklin College of Arts and Sciences, said the sequence and map will allow scientists to systematically search for genes that influence traits such as disease resistance, drought tolerance, growth rate and cell-wall composition. Once those genes are identified, breeders can develop crops that require less water or pesticides, for example, or develop plants that can be easily converted into biofuels.

Genome Mapping to Biofuels

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Since at least the 1970's, University of Georgia researchers and engineers have been working on the many different facets of developing renewable energy sources, from biodiesel to fermentation, soil sequestration and more. The many different avenues provided opportunities for crucial bench-scale breakthroughs that have allowed further related research to flourish. That progress continues today:

Researchers at the University of Georgia have taken a major step in the ongoing effort to find sources of cleaner, renewable energy by mapping the genomes of two originator cells of Miscanthus x giganteus, a large perennial grass with promise as a source of ethanol and bioenergy.