Where Are We Now?

In less than five years of operation, the CALS-led Great Lakes Bioenergy Research Center has produced a number of breakthroughs that may lead to a less oil-dependent future

TIM DONOHUE HAS SPENT THE LAST FOUR YEARS BUILDING A PIPELINE—but not the kind that springs to mind when we think of fuel.

The professor of bacteriology heads the CALS-led Great Lakes Bioenergy Research Center (GLBRC), founded with $142 million from the U.S. Department of Energy and a groundbreaking charge—to create the next generation of biofuels by harnessing renewable energy from the nonfood plants that are so plentiful all around us: grasses, trees and crop residues.

“We need to create liquid transportation fuels that are more cost-effective, more sustainable and won’t compromise the Earth or our quality of life,” says Donohue. “We’re in the middle of developing ways to generate these new fuels that are essential for powering our daily lives.”

With Michigan State University (MSU) as UW–Madison’s major partner, Donohue has assembled a team that now includes more than 400 researchers and staff and an additional nine member institutions. The effort spans two countries, 11 states and more than 60 individual lab and field facilities.

That’s a lot of brainpower. But the magnitude of the effort is commensurate with the task at hand, Donohue notes.

“We need to be considering everything from roots in the ground to what’s coming out of the nozzle,” Donohue says. “Without such a holistic approach, we won’t be able to demonstrate that this technology is feasible or see the weak spots where we can make improvements.”

What GLBRC has built is a research pipeline, a process that considers all factors that go into developing and implementing cellulosic biofuels—from creating sustainable agricultural landscapes and building better bioenergy crops to innovations in plant biomass processing and converting plant sugars into fuels.

While the promise of creating sustainable plant-based fuels isn’t new, the level of public investment needed to tackle this challenge has only recently emerged. According to the International Energy Agency, the United States leads world spending on biofuels public research, development and demonstration projects, investing $189 million in 2010 alone.

“By relying on fossils fuels, we’re living on energy that arrived on Earth many millions of years ago,” says Steve Slater, GLBRC’s scientific programs manager. “In order to reach a sustainable energy economy, we need to learn to live on the energy that arrives from the sun today. There’s a lot of that solar energy held within plant biomass, if we can figure out how to sustainably convert it to liquid fuels.”

Four years into its five-year grant, GLBRC has made some significant breakthroughs along the research pipeline. Here are some major points of interest.

First Stop: PLANTS

At agricultural research stations in Wisconsin and Michigan, GLBRC researchers tend to tall stands of such biofuel crops as switchgrass and miscanthus, measuring above-ground traits like crop yield and digging down in the dirt to monitor soil microbes and water movement. Sophisticated instruments measure greenhouse gases such as carbon dioxide and nitrous oxide. Researchers count birds and insects to measure biodiversity and use satellite data to capture a watershed-level view of land use patterns.

It’s a lot of information, but each measurement plays a role in determining how these crop contenders would fare as large-scale bioenergy crops.

The leaves and stalks of these potential bioenergy plants are comprised of large quantities of cellulose, the most abundant organic compound on the planet. Cellulose is a polysaccharide, a long chain of tightly linked sugar subunits that must be broken down into simple sugars before they can be processed into biofuel. That alone is difficult—but to make the process even harder, much of a plant’s cellulose is locked within cell walls that form a tough, protective barrier. Breaking past the walls, using enzymes or chemicals to do so, is one of the biggest challenges in creating economically viable cellulosic biofuels.

Plant cell wall structures have evolved over time to fight off pests and disease. The more scientists understand about how the walls are created, the easier it will be to break them apart. DNA sequencing capacity provided by the Department of Energy (DOE) Joint Genome Institute allows plant breeders access to genetic and genomic data that provide clues about how those cell wall layers are built.

While determining the best genetic traits for bioenergy crops is a long-range goal, GLBRC plant researchers already have made important headway when it comes to tackling lignin, one of the toughest compounds that make up plant cell walls. Researchers hope to take it apart to get at the cellulose locked inside and convert small pieces of lignin into valuable co-products. CALS biochemistry professor John Ralph and his team have identified a gene that would allow easily breakable bonds to be incorporated into plant cell walls. They’re calling this new technology Zip-Lignin™ for its ability to break apart—or unzip—the lignin within. By getting lignin out of the way, biomass processing could be completed at lower temperatures. And lower temperatures mean lower overall costs.

And on another track, GLBRC researchers at MSU have located an enzyme that creates a plant oil with unique biodiesel-like properties. Now they’re working to encourage plants to produce more of that oil, which could be used directly as a “drop-in” or ready-to-use diesel replacement.