U.S. Energy Agency To Invest $250 Million in Bioenergy Centers

By Cheryl Pellerin
Washington File Staff Writer

Washington – The U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) will spend $250 million to establish and operate two new bioenergy research centers to accelerate basic research in developing cellulosic ethanol and other fuels derived from plant byproducts, called biofuels, DOE Secretary Samuel Bodman announced August 2.

Cellulose is plant fiber that forms the main constituent of the cell wall in most plants, and is important in manufacturing products such as paper, textiles, pharmaceuticals and explosives.

“This is an important step toward our goal of replacing 30 percent of transportation fuels with biofuels by 2030,” Bodman said.

The centers’ mission, he added, “is to accelerate research that leads to breakthroughs in basic science to make biofuels a cost-effective alternative to fossil fuels.”


The work the centers will do, said DOE Undersecretary for Science Raymond Orbach, during an August 2 press briefing, “is an attempt to mimic what nature does but in a more efficient way and on a scale where it can make a major difference to the transportation fuels in this country.”

DOE is making the announcement now to solicit proposals from would-be operators of the centers. The agency will accept applications for the funding until February 1, 2007, with the winners to be announced in about a year after evaluation of the proposals by scientific peer review. The centers are expected to begin work in 2008 and will be fully operational by 2009.

DOE’s Office of Science will provide $25 million in the first year to establish each center and up to $25 million per year for the next four years to support each center’s operations - for a total award of up to $125 million per center.

The centers’ mission will be to conduct systems biology research on microbes and plants to harness nature’s powerful mechanisms for producing energy from sunlight.

A major focus will be on understanding how to re-engineer biological processes for more efficient conversion of cellulose into ethanol, a substitute for gasoline.


Fifteen billion liters of ethanol have been produced so far in 2006 in the United States, mainly from corn.

The 2005 Energy Policy Act, which calls for new programs to improve the technology and reduce the cost of biofuels production, requires that by 2012, at least 28.4 billion liters per year of renewable fuel be blended into the U.S. fuel supply.

To meet these goals, future biofuels production will have to use more diverse feedstocks, including cellulosic materials such as agricultural residues, grasses and other inedible plants.

Universities, national laboratories, nonprofit organizations and private firms are eligible to compete for an award to establish and operate a center.

DOE began supporting research on microbes and microbial communities in 2000 to tap microorganisms’ powerful and diverse capabilities to produce renewable energy, clean up the environment and manage atmospheric carbon.

Since initiating the Human Genome Project in 1986, DOE has played a major role in advancing modern biotechnology. The department’s recent research on microbes for energy production builds on those advances.

A fact sheet (PDF, 2 pages) on the bioenergy research centers is available on the DOE Web site.

More information on energy policy issues is available in the Energy Policy Archive.