Plant fuel project moves to second phase under DOE grant

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The U.S. Department of Energy is making good on the second phase of a plant fuel research project, pumping another $3 million into the study led by Dr. Joshua Yuan, Texas A&M AgriLife Research plant pathologist.

Yuan, who was granted $1.8 million for Phase I by the DOE in 2012, is focusing on tobacco as a potential fuel source.

The scientist said his research is moving ahead so quickly that he has already partnered with a company, SynShark, intent on commercializing the breakthroughs. Commercializing the technology is a condition of the grant.

“SynShark’s mission is to develop novel approaches to photosynthesis that will change science and protect endangered species,” said J.M. Ornstein of London, a SynShark director.
Yuan’s efforts began with tobacco plants, because it is easy to use in a laboratory. The targeted fuel is terpenoid, a hydrocarbon, which is in all living things. Hydrocarbon is a combustible fuel, meaning it can be ignited or burned to produce energy.

His plan is to develop a way for a plant to produce terpenoid directly – so that it would be easily “squeezed out” in near ready-to-use form rather than having to be processed into a fuel.

Yuan’s grant comes under the Advanced Research Projects Agency, which focuses on “transformational energy research” that has high risk but the potential to “yield dramatic benefits for the nation,” according to the energy department.

“Our entire team has worked hard to achieve our Phase I goals with the terpene,” said Yuan, whose award falls under the Advanced Research Projects Agency’s PETRO — Plants Engineered To Replace Oil — program. “A provisional patent is already filed for the research findings thus far.”

During the second portion of his research, Yuan’s team plans to increase the amount of combustible fuel a plant can yield to obtain a commercially viable amount.

“The goal of the product is to get it competitive without subsidies,” Ornstein said. “There’s a general concern that biofuel is too high priced. Plus, we’re interested in technology that is carbon dioxide neutral. This is renewable and sustainable while leveraging an American crop for a positive outcome.”

The two said that the long-established U.S. tobacco industry might be revitalized as the technology improves to yield commercial amounts of fuel. The project is expected to continue until February 2016.


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