Maryland institute to contribute to biomass research

By Anna Austin
Stemming from BP Corp.'s 10-year, $500 million research partnership with the University of California, Berkeley in 2007 aimed at developing new sources of energy and reducing the impact of energy consumption on the environment, the school has awarded a $575,000, three-year subcontract to the University of Maryland Biosciences Institute.

The contract, implemented in August, will fund the development of efficient ways to convert lignocellulose to ethanol. Experiments at UMBI will utilize wood residues such as municipal paper waste, energy crops such as woody grasses and agricultural wastes such as corn stover.

In 2007, UC Berkeley joined forces with BP, Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory and the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign to form the Energy Biosciences Institute, housed in dedicated facilities on each campus. "Through highly collaborative, intensely interactive research, we will strive to make the scientific and technical breakthroughs that will lead to environmentally sustainable, economically viable transportation fuels to replace fossil-based fuel," said Rob Kolb, communications manager for EBI.

Kolb said the initial thrust of EBI research is the development of commercially viable, highly productive and environmentally benign transportation fuels-including cellulosic biofuels-from biomass. "This involves identifying the most suitable species of plants for use as energy crops; improving methods of breeding, propagation, planting, harvesting and storage; and developing processing methodologies that ensure a sustainable fuel product," he said.

To accomplish this, Kolb said research is divided into several areas of inquiry such as feedstock development; biomass depolymerization (breaking down the plant cell walls into fermentable sugars); biofuels production; and the social, environmental and economic dimensions of biofuel development.

From an initial list of more than 250 pre-proposals from researchers at the three institutions, EBI management narrowed the field to 49 high-priority research efforts, which received institute funding in 2008, the project's first year. Kolb said research is taking place in both California and Illinois, with most of the agricultural test fields in the Midwest.