Colorado Center For Biorefining And Biofuels Announces $500,000 In Seed Grants For Research

October 29, 2007

A joint center of the University of Colorado at Boulder, Colorado State University, the Colorado School of Mines, the National Renewable Energy Laboratory and industry has announced $500,000 in grants to 10 teams pursuing renewable energy research ranging from the solar conversion of plant material for fuels to genetic crop engineering.

The Colorado Center for Biorefining and Biofuels, or C2B2, was founded in March 2007 by the Colorado Renewable Energy Collaboratory, a consortium involving all four institutions. The goal is to increase the production and use of energy from renewable resources, said C2B2 Executive Director Alan Weimer, a professor in CU-Boulder's chemical and biological engineering department.

The 10 winning proposals, each for $50,000, were selected by members of C2B2's 27 industry sponsors, including such companies as Chevron, ConocoPhillips, Dow Chemical and Shell Global Solutions, Weimer said. CU-Boulder led the way with five funded proposals, CSU and Mines each received two and NREL, a national laboratory of the U.S. Department of Energy, was awarded one.

"The mission of C2B2 is to improve the fundamental understanding of the conversion of biomass to fuels and products and develop viable technologies that can be commercialized by our industry partners in relatively short order," said Weimer. "The message from these awards is that C2B2 is thriving, and we have a tremendous amount of interest from the private sector that is only going to grow."

David Hiller, executive director of the Colorado Renewable Energy Collaboratory, said each of center's six thrusts was funded within the 10 proposals. The six thrusts include crop engineering, biochemical conversion using enzymes and organisms, thermo-chemical conversion, process engineering, product engineering and system engineering.

"These first 10 seed grants highlight the central strengths of C2B2 and the collaboratory," said Hiller. "We have four excellent faculties with broad research capabilities, a spirit of cooperation among the institutions and a strong public-private partnership."

The center, which has a current budget of nearly $2 million, is funded by the four institutions, state matching funds and industry sponsor fees. The annual budget is expected to reach $5 million to $10 million in the next several years as sponsored research increases and memberships from industry collaborators grow, Weimer said.

C2B2 is headquartered at CU-Boulder.

Weimer, who received one of the 10 awards, will use the funding to explore the use of concentrated sunlight to convert algae into intermediate forms of synthesis gas, or syngas, which subsequently can be "shifted" to hydrogen or reformed to liquid fuels. Weimer is collaborating with NREL scientists on the project.

A second award to C2B2 Managing Director and CU-Boulder Assistant Professor Ryan Gill involves using genetic tools to engineer microbial communities known as biofilms that adhere to surfaces. More efficient biofilms can increase the production of biofuels made from the cellulose of plant leaves, stems and stalks, said Gill, who is collaborating with CSU co-investigator Ken Reardon on the effort.

Another CU-Boulder project involves developing specialized membranes to separate alcohol -- a potent source of renewable energy -- and water, which would eliminate the need for energy-sapping distillation processes often used for alcohol fuel production. A fourth CU-Boulder project involves the rapid screening of microbes to find types particularly well suited for energy conversion processes. The fifth CU-Boulder proposal involves the recovery of sugar and enzymes during processes that break down complex carbohydrates like cellulose during biofuel production.

One of the two CSU winning proposals involves the genetic engineering of sugar beets, viewed by many as a model renewable energy crop. The second project, led by CSU Site Director Ken Reardon, involves new technologies to stimulate algae to produce enough oils to be converted into biodiesel.

The two CSM awards include a project led by CSM Site Director John Dorgan to integrate the creation of bioplastics from plant byproducts in existing refineries, while a second project involves the technological and economic analysis of a proposed thermo-chemical plant to produce biofuels from cellulose.

The NREL award, led by NREL Site Director Al Darzins, involves establishing a bioenergy-focused algae strain collection. Darzins is collaborating with CSM's John Spear and Matt Posewitz to use cell sorting and robotic techniques to rapidly isolate and evaluate different species of microalgae for their suitability in biofuel production.

"The biggest winners in the development of C2B2 will be the students," Weimer said. "I can't imagine why any high school student interested in biofuels and renewable energy would consider leaving the state to attend college elsewhere with the opportunities C2B2 provides at the three Colorado universities."

Graduate students at four institutions will meet twice a year with C2B2 industry partners to present their research findings, an opportunity CU-Boulder Vice Chancellor for Research Stein Sture said is unusual in the arena of higher education. "The chance for these students to find jobs in their fields when they have finished school is heightened considerably by these interactions with the companies," said Sture, who is dean of the Graduate School.

In addition to fellowships for undergraduates, graduate students and postdoctoral researchers, C2B2 administrators plan to bring in 10 to 20 top undergraduates from around the nation as part of the Research Experience for Undergraduates Program to work with university and industry researchers, Weimer said. C2B2 administrators also are planning outreach activities to area K-12 schools, he said.

Industry sponsors can participate in discoveries and patents generated with the aim of commercializing new technologies quickly, said Gill. Sponsors also may enter into individual agreements to fund proprietary research through C2B2.

"None of us thought the center would take off this fast," said Gill, a faculty member in CU-Boulder's chemical and biological engineering department. "We could not be more pleased with the response we have had and we're excited about the future of C2B2."

A podcast on C2B2 featuring Weimer can be accessed on the Web at: www.colorado.edu/news/podcasts/. For more information on C2B2 visit the Web at: www.colorado.edu/che/c2b2/index.html or contact the following institutional C2B2 site directors: Will Medlin, CU-Boulder, (303) 492-2418, will.medlin@colorado.edu; Ken Reardon, CSU, (970) 491-6505, Kenneth.reardon@colostate.edu; John Dorgan, CSM, (303) 273-3539, jdorgan@mines.edu; and Al Darzins, NREL, (303) 384-7757, al_darzins@nrel.gov.

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