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ARPA-E Grant Funding Plant Hydrocarbon Feedstock Research

Joshua Yuan (Texas Agrilife Research)

Joshua Yuan (Texas AgriLife Research)

The Advanced Research Projects Agency – Energy (ARPA-E, part of the U.S. Department of Energy) has awarded a $1.8 million grant to Texas AgriLife Research in College Station to study the potential of tobacco as a direct source of fuel. The grant can also provide Texas AgriLife plant pathologist Joshua Yuan (pictured left) with another $2 million award to then transfer that capability to higher oil-producing giant reed plants.

The key to generating fuels from tobacco and then reeds are terpenoids, a class of natural plant products with an array of functions, such as generating scents and flavors, as well as antibacterial and pharmaceutical properties. Terpenoids are also a source of hydrocarbons, which is where they drew the interest of Yuan and now ARPA-E.

Yuan plans to use tobacco plants at first because of their ease of use in a laboratory. If the reengineering technology works in simple tobacco plants, the goal is to transfer that ability to make fuel to higher producing and renewable plants.

One of those plants is giant reeds, found largely in Texas and the southwestern U.S. Up to now giant reeds have been considered more of a pest to growers than a productive crop. Giant reeds can grow up to 20 feet in height and grow so quickly and in so many different types of soil that they outcompete and suppress native vegetation.

A key feature of Yuan’s plan is speed. Yuan’s timetable has has his team engineering a tobacco plant in 18 months that can yield 2 percent of its dry weight in terpene, a fuel derivative of terpenoid, while improving the plant’s ability to both store and release the fuel. “If we can do that,”says Yuan, “then the next phase is to increase the yield to 20 percent and transfer the technology to the reed.”

Yuan’s goal is to achieve that 20 percent yield in three years, which he believes could have an an impact on the nation’s fuel supplies. He plans to use photosynthesis to produce the fuel, then engineer more storage capacity in the giant reed, so larger quantities of oil can be squeezed out of the plants. The giant reed, Yuan believes, could be made to store enough fuel to make the technology economically feasible while not competing with cropland.

Read more: ARPA-E Grant Funds Development of Univ. Oil Plant Research

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