ARPA-E Aims to Engineer Efficient Biofuel Crops

The fourth round of funding from the DOE's Advanced Research Projects Agency -- Energy, or ARPA-E, includes up to $30 million for the newly announced PETRO project. PETRO, or Plants Engineered To Replace Oil, looks to create new or modified plants that "capture more energy from sunlight and convert that energy directly into fuels."

Current biofuel crops suffer from low-efficiency energy conversion both from the sun and then in the processes we use to turn them into fuel, which means relatively low yields of fuel per acre. This, of course, leads to the seemingly paradoxical problem of biofuels from plants such as corn ending up with equal or even higher carbon dioxide emissions (when full lifecycle analyses are included) than traditionally dirtier fuels.

And carbon emissions aside, there is also the threat of biofuel crops displacing food crops, raising food prices around the world. This was evident in 2008 when food prices spiked, and it seems to be happening again now. There are many possible reasons for corn's 53 percent price increase in 2010, but the U.S. policy on corn ethanol undoubtedly plays a role. By 2022, the United States is mandated to produce 36 billion gallons of biofuel; even in 2010, with a 12 billion gallon requirement, close to 40 percent of the corn produced went to ethanol production.

All of that is to say that the ARPA-E goal to increase efficiency and yield per acre would, if successful, have wide-ranging and beneficial impacts. The PETRO project is described as follows:

ARPA-E seeks to fund technologies that optimize the biochemical processes of energy capture and conversion to develop robust, farm-ready crops that deliver more energy per acre with less processing prior to the pump. If successful, PETRO will create biofuels for half their current cost, finally making them cost-competitive with fuels from oil.

This joins other ARPA-E initiatives on cleaner fuels, including their direct solar fuels project and an umbrella biomass project that includes some work on advanced fuels.

(Image via Steve Jurvetson)

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