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Illinois IGB

The Energy Biosciences Institute

September 30, 2010

Realizing Sustainable Biofuels

From media reports, Americans might conclude that surging ethanol production has put the nation well on the road to energy independence – but that is not quite the case. There are still a host of biological, environmental, technical, and legal issues that must be resolved for the U.S. biofuels industry to reach its potential, including avoiding conflict with food production, and maximizing environmental and economic benefits.

The newly formed Energy Biosciences Institute (EBI) is working to overcome these barriers and realize sustainable second-generation biofuels from second-generation feedstocks. The Institute will do so with the enormous scientific resources available through its three research partners – the University of Illinois, the University of California at Berkeley, and Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratories in California. A fourth partner, the International  energy giant BP, will provide funding.  Although BP’s major business remains oil, in 1997 it was the first major oil company to state publicly that the industry must address climate change.  Since then, it has invested heavily in wind power, solar energy, and now, renewable biofuels.

The EBI is unique in including an open collaboration between university and industry scientists – biologists, geneticists, biochemists, molecular biologists, atmospheric scientists, economists, biomolecular engineers, and other specialists working to develop sustainable biofuels to combat global climate change. At Illinois, these researchers are part of nine research programs, each dedicated to addressing critical issues in the biofuels industry.

Which Crop to Grow

One of the major issues confronting the industry involves choosing the right plants to make sustainable biofuels. Two promising possible alternatives are switchgrass and Miscanthus. Switchgrass has received particular attention because it is a native plant that grows in excess of ten feet tall and has the potential to produce far more usable energy than traditional crops, such as corn. And the giant Miscanthus (Miscanthus x Giganteus), a grass from E. Asia, exceeds switchgrass yields.  The Institute will also look at sugar cane, sorghum and many prairies grasses.

Yet energy production is only one aspect of biomass growth that Illinois researchers will investigate. One team will look at how switchgrass, restored prairie plants, giant Miscanthus and continuous corn impact ecosystem services. The researchers want to know how well each of these crops sequesters atmospheric carbon in the soil the way that affects drainage water quality. Sequestering carbon is an important part of the effort to cut greenhouse gas emissions.

A second group will create a database of genetic information to help speed development of improved varieties of Miscanthus and surgarcane, a warm-climate biofuel feedstock plant. These plants already have one significant advantage over corn: they are perennials. This means they do not have to be replanted each year, which will result in sizable savings on labor, machinery, and tractor fuel.

A third team will test how well selected biofuel crops grow in a variety of locations. The initial tests will be done in Illinois, Florida, Louisiana, Wisconsin, Ohio, Minnesota, New York, Colorado, New Jersey, and the Canadian province of Ontario. Additional trials may be held in Mexico and Argentina. This team will also try to identify other potential biofuel crops through collaborations with botanical gardens and nurseries in the U.S., Europe, and Asia.

Getting More Energy from Each Plant

The biofuel industry will get a substantial production boost if scientists can find ways to speed the recovery of biofuel feedstock from each plant. Two Illinois research teams will look for ways to do this.

One team will look for efficient ways to digest to energy-rich cellulose, which is found in the cell walls of plants. Cellulose can be difficult to reach because layers of another plant matter, lignin, can get in the way. The researchers want to create enzymes, nature’s catalysts, to degrade these layers.

A second team will look for new bacteria and enzymes to speed the conversion of plants into biofuels.  One subject of their research is certain anaerobic bacteria which do well at higher temperatures, because these show promise for improving the efficiency of ethanol distilling.


Even with improvements in feedstocks and production, the biofuels industry will never reach full potential unless researchers can come to terms with a number of other issues. For instance, biofuel crops are susceptible to losses from pests and plant diseases. One research team will focus on identifying pests and pathogens that strike Miscanthus, to help agronomists and plant pathologists create pest and disease management strategies.

Another group will look at the impact of large-scale biofuel production on land use, farm income, and the environment, over a 20-year period. These researchers will also determine the optimal size and location of biofuel refineries, and examine how various biofuel crops impact efforts to mitigate greenhouse gas emissions.

EBI specialists will also study the harvest, transport, storage, and preservation of biofuels, looking for ways to improve them.

Finally, even if these biological and logistical hurdles are resolved, the biofuels industry can still hit bumps set up by an immense network of local, state, and national laws and regulations. Illinois EBI scientists will identify existing legal and regulatory hurdles to the commercialization of biofuels, and recommend ways to minimize legal disruptions to biofuel research, production, and sales.

EBI Programs and Principal Investigators

Engineering of Thermophilic Anaerobic Bacteria to Improve Biocatalysis of Plant Cell Wall Materials to Ethanol/Butanol

Isaac Cann

Ecosystem Impact and Sustainability of Feedstock Production

Evan DeLucia

Biochemistry, Structure, and Engineering of Enzymes to Overcome Biomass Recalcitrance

John Gerlt

Assessing the Potential Impact of Insect Pests and Plant Pathogens on the Biomass Production of Miscanthus (Miscanthus x giganteus) and Switchgrass (Panicum virgatum)

Mike Gray

Cellulosic Ethanol – Regulatory and Legal Issues

Jay Kesan

Economic and Environmental Impacts of Biofuels: Implications for Land Use and Policy

Madhu Khanna

Genomics-Enabled Improvement of Andropogoneae Grasses as Feedstocks for Enhanced Biofuel Production

Stephen Moose

Engineering Solutions for Biomass Feedstock Production

K. C. Ting

Feedstock Production/Agronomy Laboratory

Tom Voigt

September 30, 2010
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