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News Release

University of Minnesota researchers win $2.2 million federal stimulus grant to use bacteria to produce biofuel

Contacts: Peggy Rinard, College of Biological Sciences, (612) 624-0774
Patty Mattern, University News Service, (612) 624-2801 or mattern@umn.edu

MINNEAPOLIS / ST. PAUL (10/27/2009) —A team of University of Minnesota researchers and BioCee, a university start-up company, have been awarded $2.2 million from the Department of Energy for a research proposal using bacteria to produce biofuel.

Lead investigator Larry Wackett, University Distinguished McKnight Professor in the College of Biological Sciences, is working with faculty from the BioTechnology Institute; Department of Biochemistry, Molecular Biology and Biophysics; Department of Microbiology; and the Institute of Technology’s Department of Chemical Engineering and Materials Science.
 
The university’s project was one of three featured in Monday's New York Times. In essence, the team proposes to develop a bioreactor using bacteria embedded in a thin latex coating to produce hydrocarbon fuel. They are one of the only groups in the world with the ability to make biohydrocarbons. Hydrocarbon fuel has many advantages because society has invested trillions of dollars in the infrastructure to produce, transport and use it.  
 
The grant is one of 37 totaling $151 million announced by Energy Secretary Steven Chu. The grants are administered by the Advanced Research Projects Agency-Energy (ARPA-E), which was created to stimulate American leadership in renewable energy technology. This is the first round of projects funded under the agency, which is receiving $400 million from the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act. 
 
“This is part of a new effort by the United States to spur the next Industrial Revolution in clean energy technologies,” said Chu, who received the 1997 Nobel Prize in Physics. All of the proposals are creative longshots, any one of which could help solve global energy problems if successful, he said. 
 
“We have been laying the foundation for this award for decades by hiring the right people,” said Bob Elde, dean of the College of Biological Sciences. “Thanks to university and state support for the BioTechnology Institute, the Biocatalysis Initiative, and renewable energy research, we have a team with the academic horsepower to compete at a national level.”
 
The innovative process aimed at producing hydrocarbon fuel combines the work of several University of Minnesota faculty. Michael Flickinger, a former College of Biological Sciences professor, and the late L. E. (Skip) Scriven, an Institute of Technology professor, devised the latex coating technology. BioCee, a Twin Cities start-up company, has exclusively licensed the coating technology IP from the U of M and is developing it for commercial applications. 
 
Wackett (Department of Biochemistry, Molecular Biology and Biophysics) brings expertise on the biochemistry of hydrocarbon biosynthesis. Jeffrey Gralnick (BioTechnology Institute and Department of Microbiology) contributes extensive knowledge of Shewanella, the organism used to produce hydrocarbons. Lanny Schmidt and Aditya Bahn (Department of Chemical Engineering and Materials Science) will investigate the conversion of the biohydrocarbons into gasoline and diesel fuels. The U of M scientists will collaborate with researchers at the Pacific Northwest National Laboratory, who bring expertise at using blue-green algae to capture CO2 from the atmosphere and culture it with Shewanella bacteria to produce hydrocarbons. 
 
The grant will be used to integrate the expertise of the group to develop a new and scalable technology for producing biohydrocarbons as fuels.
 
A team of 500 top scientists in the United States, identified by university presidents, screened 3,700 pre-proposals for the highly competitive grants. Only one percent was selected for funding. 
 
The Initiative for Renewable Energy and the Environment (IREE), a signature program of the University of Minnesota’s Institute on the Environment, provided early-stage support and matching funds of $300,000 to support the project. The Biocatalysis Initiative, administered by the University’s BioTechnology Institute, also provided support.

Tags: College of Biological Sciences

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