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Published on June 19th, 2015 | by Tina Casey

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Energy Department Bets $30 Million On More & Better Biofuel, With Robots (& Drones)

June 19th, 2015 by  


The Energy Department has just announced a whopping $30 million round of projects for biofuel research, aimed at the transportation sector. We’ve been on a biofuel binge all week but this really tops them all in terms of cutting-edge technology and, yes, robots are involved.

Before we get into the meat of the matter, let’s note up front that the entire pot — yes, all $30 million — is aimed at developing better varieties of sorghum. Certain federal legislators (okay, so Republicans according to ClimateWire) probably won’t be able to resist the urge to poke fun at a silly-sounding research project, so don’t be surprised if sorghum becomes the new shrimp on a treadmill.

AgBo sorghum biofuel robot

Cutting-Edge Sorghum Biofuel Research

The new biofuel program comes through the Energy Department’s ARPA-E (Advanced Research Projects Agency) arm, which was set up under the Bush Administration to accelerate the kind of high-risk, high-return research that private sector investors shy away from.

Transportation Energy Resources from Renewable Agriculture (TERRA) is the name of the $30 million sorghum program. It is based on an integrated platform that connects agriculture with computers and advanced engineering.

Here’s the rundown from ARPA-E:

The program will encourage systems that couple large scale physical and genetic characterization with advanced algorithms in order to accelerate the year-over-year yield gains of traditional plant breeding and the discovery of crop traits that improve water productivity, nutrient use and our ability to mitigate greenhouse gases.

The $30 million will go to six sorghum biofuel projects, focusing on the development of mobile platforms — heck, let’s just call them robots — that can go out into the field to observe and collect data for phenotyping (that’s fancyspeak for identifying physical characteristics).

Currently, such research is conducted practically by hand, so simply picking up the pace of data collection is expected to accelerate the overall rate of new crop development.

The back end of the project is to put the data to use for developing advanced algorithms that predict growth potential, and all that stuff will be made available to the public.



 

Six Cool Cyber-Farming Projects

ARPA-E only highlighted one project in its press material, but it handily provided a link to the rest of them, so here’s a rundown of all six sorghum biofuel projects:

Clemson University walks away with $6 million for robots — and drones — that can test plants several times a day, partly through direct contact. The Clemson program is called Breeding High Yielding Bioenergy Sorghum for the New Bioenergy Belt, leveraging the school’s relationship with the Carnegie Mellon Robotics Institute and other partners.

The Donald Danforth Plant Science Center gets $8 million to coordinate a network of test sites that includes Arizona, Kansas, South Carolina, and Texas, as well as its home state of Missouri. The data, including a genomic analysis component, will be archived for the public in a “high-performance computing environment.”

Pacific Northwest National Laboratory and its partners Blue River Technologies and Chromatin Inc. will apply their $3.3 million slice of the pie to develop robotic platforms that will enable phenotyping down to the molecular level, with a particular eye on the effects of exposure to drought and salinity. The end result will be the development of commercial seed cultivars.

Purdue University, with an assist from IBM Research and other partners, gets $6.5 million to create something called the Automated Sorghum Phenotyping and Trait Development Platform. It will develop advanced methods for identifying genes that control sorghum growth and other performance factors. The end result will be a user-friendly database available to breeders and other interested parties.

Texas A&M AgriLife Research calls its project Automated Phenotyping System for Genetic Improvement of Energy Crops. Partnered with the National Robotics Engineering Center among others, it gets $3.1 million to develop a robotics platform that includes an extendable arm capable of penetrating dense plant canopies, which is expected to provide data that is currently unobtainable.

The University of Illinois at Urbana gets $3.1 million to develop a project called MEPP, for Mobile Energy Crop Phenotyping Platform. Cornell University and Signetron Inc. are partners in the project. This was the only project highlighted in ARPA-E’s press materials, so with that in mind, here’s the rundown:

[The team] will develop small – scale, automated ground rovers with the distinct capability to travel within the crops between rows. Phenotyping platforms will measure crop growth via 3 – D reconstruction of plants and stands and assess physiological indicators of performance using reflectance and LiDAR (laser light detection and ranging) sensors. The team will also use sophisticated biophysical growth models and DNA – sequencing technologies to develop innovative methods for accelerating improvement of energy sorghum and identifying key genes that control plant performance.

We noodled around on the University of Illinois website and found the little robo-farmer in the photo at the top of this post, dubbed AgBo, so we’re guessing that MEPP will look somewhat similar.

Or, maybe not. The folks over there at the Agricultural and Biological Engineering division have a whole raft of agricultural robots in the works, including one that looks like a Stanley Steamer:

AgTracker sorghum biofuel robot

Its real name is AgTracker, by the way. Here’s another one called AgAnt for obvious reasons:

AgAnt sorghum biofuel robot

More & Better Biofuels

Not for nothing, but while electric vehicles (and to some extent, fuel cell vehicles) have been grabbing the spotlight, a ton of R&D is still being pumped into liquid transportation fuels. The gasmobile is going to be sticking around for a while, whether it runs on fossils or some form of biomass.

This certainly has been an interesting week for liquid fuel. Just yesterday we took note of a weird-looking car that runs on evaporating water and bacterial spores (some of our readers point out that bacteria could be considered a form of biomass).

Along those lines, the company Joule announced earlier this week that it had obtained additional patents for its biofuel conversion process, which makes liquid fuel from sunlight, carbon dioxide, and cyanobacteria.

Earlier this week, our sister site Gas2.org caught up with a story about a bus that set a new speed record for another interesting form of biomass-derived fuel.

We also got another indication that biomass will play a role in the sustainable fuel cell vehicle of the future. The week also started off with a fuel cell announcement from BMW, which noted that the company’s research into hydrogen sourced from biogas (landfill gas, to be precise) has been paying off.

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Photos (all three) courtesy of The University of Illinois at Urbana — Champaign. 
 
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About the Author

specializes in military and corporate sustainability, advanced technology, emerging materials, biofuels, and water and wastewater issues. Tina’s articles are reposted frequently on Reuters, Scientific American, and many other sites. Views expressed are her own. Follow her on Twitter @TinaMCasey and Google+.



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