US Government Funding Helps Biofuels Move Forward

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If you’re a regular around here, you probably know that we prefer renewable electricity for powering vehicles. This usually involves battery storage, though. While battery technology has gotten to the point where it’s viable to do things like electric cars, boats, trucks, and even some planes, the relatively low energy density of batteries will be an obstacle to many applications for years to come, and for some applications, perhaps decades.

So, we’re still fans of biofuels when they’re the cleanest way to get a job done. And, fortunately, we’ve seen two pieces of news in recent weeks that show the United States government is still trying to help biofuels improve, come from cleaner sources, and work better with infrastructure.

Brookhaven National Laboratory Modifies Fast-Growing Duckweed To Make Biofuels

The US Department of Energy’s Brookhaven National Laboratory and its collaborators at Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory have engineered duckweed to generate a copious amount of oil through genetic techniques. By introducing specific genes, the team was able to promote fatty acid synthesis, accumulate these acids into oil reserves, and maintain this result from degradation over time. As the scientists demonstrated in their Plant Biotechnology Journal paper, such an oil-rich strain of duckweed could be conveniently obtained for use as biofuel or bioproducts creation.

In the paper, researchers demonstrate how they modified a species of duckweed named Lemna japonica to accumulate oil at nearly 10% of its dry biomass weight — an astonishing 100-times advancement over those growing in their natural environment. This is more than seven times higher than soybeans, which are the leading source of biodiesel today.

“Duckweed grows fast,” said Brookhaven Lab biochemist John Shanklin, the team’s leader. “It has only tiny stems and roots — so most of its biomass is in leaf-like fronds that grow on the surface of ponds worldwide. Our engineering creates high oil content in all that biomass. Growing and harvesting this engineered duckweed in batches and extracting its oil could be an efficient pathway to renewable and sustainable oil production.”

Oil-extracting duckweed offers a unique solution for the agricultural industry, as it doesn’t require nutrient-dense land to thrive. It can in fact flourish in the runoff from animal farms such as pig and poultry operations. As an aquatic plant, this crop is perfect for producing sustainable oil without taking away resources that are necessary for food production.

“That means this engineered plant could potentially clean up agricultural waste streams as it produces oil,” Shanklin added.

The origins of this project lie in the investigations carried out by William S. Hillman and his team from Brookhaven Lab’s Biology Department back in the 1970s on duckweeds. Subsequently, staff members from the same department worked together with Martienssen’s crew at Cold Spring Harbor to formulate a highly efficient strategy for expressing foreign genes into duckweed plants as well as techniques to selectively inhibit expression of natural duckweed genes based on prerequisite conditions.

The Brookhaven scientists uncovered three genes that drive the production of oils. One directs fatty acids, which are the fundamental components of petroleum; another merges those fatty acids into triacylglycerols (TAG) and forms hydrocarbons known as oil; while a third gene produces proteins to shield these oil droplets in plant tissue from destruction.

US DOE Invests In More Domestic Biofuel Production

Finding new clean biofuels is one thing, but making it at scale and getting it to replace dirtier fuels is another thing entirely. Fortunately, the Department of Energy thought of that, too!

Recently, the US Department of Energy (DOE) declared a stunning $118 million investment in 17 projects to promote the production of eco-friendly biofuels for our nation’s transportation and manufacturing sectors. These select initiatives — located at universities and private businesses alike — will stimulate domestic biorefinery growth from pre-pilot to demonstration level with an aim to deliver sustainable fuels that diminish emissions tied to fossil fuels consumption.

With this opportunity, the DOE is able to support President Biden’s aspirations of building a more equitable and ecologically conscious energy future. With the selection criteria based on reducing greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions by at least 70% by 2030 and achieving cost-competitive biofuels, these projects will help put our nation on track for net-zero emissions economy-wide before 2050.

“Biofuels are a versatile tool because they have the immediate potential to power our ships, trains, airlines and heavy-duty vehicles—a huge contributor to total carbon emissions—with a significantly reduced carbon footprint,” said US Secretary of Energy Jennifer M. Granholm. “DOE investments are helping to build out a domestic bioenergy supply chain that increases America’s energy independence, creates jobs, and accelerates the adoption of cleaner fuels for our transportation needs.”

Domestic, renewable feedstocks and innovative refining technologies are utilized in the creation of energy-dense biofuels. Biofuel usage can reduce greenhouse gas emissions throughout transportation and aid with developing a biodiverse economy. Accessing funds for biorefinery process systems is often challenging; however, this funding will decrease technological concerns to help commercialize advanced biofuels into our industry more quickly.

The carefully selected projects feature pre-pilot, pilot, and demonstration operations which will promote existing biomass to fuel technologies. This is estimated to generate many millions of gallons of low-carbon fuels per year. Furthermore, by investing in these innovative solutions it will create high quality job opportunities with good pay rates throughout nine states — especially helping rural or disadvantaged places benefit from the impact.

The chosen projects plan to join forces with nearby school districts in order to instruct and educate the future generation of bioenergy professionals. These funded initiatives align with the objectives laid out by the first US National Blueprint for Transportation Decarbonization: a multi-agency scheme which strives towards reducing emissions, creating a strong transportation workforce, and securing America’s energy autonomy.

These projects align with the US Sustainable Aviation Fuel Grand Challenge’s ambitious goal of producing three billion gallons per annum of sustainable aviation fuel by 2030 and an astounding 35 billion gallons every year by 2050.

These funded projects range from $500,000 to $80 million. Most applicants receive at least two million in funding. Once selections are finalized and pass our rigorous eligibility checks, they will be managed by DOE’s Bioenergy Technologies Office (BETO). What’s even more impressive is that over the past couple years alone BETO has invested half a billion dollars in bioenergy and biorefinery research and development — making this program an extraordinary opportunity for those seeking financial support.

Featured image provided by Brookhaven National Laboratory (Public Domain).

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Jennifer Sensiba

Jennifer Sensiba is a long time efficient vehicle enthusiast, writer, and photographer. She grew up around a transmission shop, and has been experimenting with vehicle efficiency since she was 16 and drove a Pontiac Fiero. She likes to get off the beaten path in her "Bolt EAV" and any other EVs she can get behind the wheel or handlebars of with her wife and kids. You can find her on Twitter here, Facebook here, and YouTube here.

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