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Discovery Park center awarded $12 million DOE grant to advance research for converting plant biomass into liquid hydrocarbon fuels


A research center at Purdue University's Discovery Park has been awarded a $12 million, four-year grant as part of a $100 million U.S. Department of Energy initiative to accelerate scientific breakthroughs needed to build the 21st century energy economy.

The Purdue-led Center for Direct Catalytic Conversion of Biomass to Biofuels (C3Bio) will use the additional funding to advance methods for converting plant lignocellulosic biomass - the bulk of the plant - to biofuels and other bio-based products currently derived from oil by the use of new chemical catalysts and thermal treatments.

U.S. Energy Secretary Ernest Moniz announced the award as part of the second round of funding for Energy Frontier Research Centers (EFRCs), which are focused on enabling fundamental advances in energy production, storage and use.

"The success of C3Bio in this arena of high-risk, high-reward research is revolutionizing how we view biomass – essentially the leftovers of our crop production processes – as one solution to future global energy demands," said Purdue President Mitch Daniels. "Just as important as its scientific breakthroughs, this research center has filed six patent applications and launched a startup company, Spero Energy. We are creating quality jobs for researchers in Indiana and at our partner universities, growing our economy and establishing a paradigm for training the next generation of energy researchers."

C3Bio director Maureen McCann, a professor of biological sciences and director of the Purdue Energy Center, said C3Bio is investigating the most carbon- and energy-efficient pathways to route the carbon trapped by photosynthesis in the bodies of plants into energy-dense fuels and high-value chemicals.

Awarded a $20 million grant by the federal government in the first round of EFRCs in 2009, the center also is researching how to produce biofuels that closely resemble gasoline and aviation fuel in terms of their molecular makeup and energy density, she said.

"We are accelerating the transformation of biomass that naturally occurs over geological ages to timescales of minutes," McCann said. "At C3Bio, chemists and chemical engineers are learning to work with highly complex mixtures of biomass components, while plant biologists work to improve biomass structures for new chemical conversion processes. We want to deliver the knowledge base for a sustainable and renewable bio-economy with product streams as diverse in functionality as those of the petrochemical industry."

The center is part of Discovery Park's Energy Center and the Bindley Bioscience Center. Joining Purdue as partners of C3Bio are the National Renewable Energy Laboratory, University of Tennessee and Northeastern University.

The 32 projects receiving EFRC funding were competitively selected from more than 200 proposals. Ten of these projects are new while the rest received renewed funding based both on their achievements to date and the quality of their proposals for future research.

Twenty-three of the projects receiving funding are headed by universities, eight are led by the Energy Department's National Laboratories and one project is run by a nonprofit organization.

Awards range from $2 million to $4 million per year per center for up to four fiscal years, subject to a progress review in year two. DOE plans to open the EFRC program to new applications every two years.

"Today, we are mobilizing some of our most talented scientists to join forces and pursue the discoveries and breakthroughs that will lay the foundation for our nation's energy future," Moniz said in announcing the DOE grants. "The funding we're announcing today will help fuel scientific and technological innovation."

Since its launch five years ago, C3Bio and its team of researchers have filed patent applications for innovative mass spectrometry systems; high-pressure, low-residence-time hydropyrolysis units; and technology to recover high-value aromatic products from lignin, currently a waste product.

More than 100 early career scientists, including undergraduate, graduate and postdoctoral students, have been involved in C3Bio research.

"Of all our many significant accomplishments, we're also excited about the impact that we're having on a new generation of researchers empowered to think creatively beyond the traditional discipline boundaries and energized by grand challenge science," McCann said.

Since their establishment by the department's Office of Science, the EFRCs have produced 5,400 peer-reviewed scientific publications and hundreds of inventions at various stages of the patent process. EFRC research also has benefited a number of large and small firms, including startup companies.

The centers selected for the second round of funding will help lay the scientific groundwork for fundamental advances in solar energy, electrical energy storage, carbon capture and sequestration, materials and chemistry by design, biosciences, and extreme environments.

At Discovery Park, researchers across multiple disciplines are coming together to address a host of major global challenges - from energy, cancer and climate change to health care, nanotechnology, food security and innovating learning in science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM). Earlier this year, Discovery Park surpassed the $1 billion mark based on the amount of generated sponsored research, private gifts and endowments since its launch in 2001.

Writer: Phillip Fiorini, 765-496-3133,

Sources: Mitch Daniels,

Maureen McCann, 765-494-1610,


About the Purdue Energy Center

Moving from petroleum to plants to energize our world


Article originally published in Purdue Today.

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