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ORAU Coordinates Independent Reviews for Establishment of DOE Bioenergy Research Centers

An ORNL researcher takes a sample of a poplar seedling for analysis as part of the DOE Bioenergy Research Center’s work to develop crops for biofuels production. Photo courtesy of Oak Ridge National Laboratory.

With an investment totaling more than $400 million into three new Bioenergy Research Centers in 2007, the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) took an important step in strengthening America’s energy security.

The actions also advanced former President George W. Bush’s Twenty-in-Ten Initiative, which seeks to reduce U.S. gasoline consumption by 20 percent within 10 years through increased efficiency and diversification of clean energy sources.

The Genomics: GTL program within DOE’s Office of Biological and Environmental Research turned to Oak Ridge Associated Universities (ORAU) to coordinate the merit-based, competitive review process that included external scientific peer review of the research proposals for the funded centers, which are intended to accelerate basic research in the development of cellulosic ethanol and other biofuels.

ORAU’s role included coordinating three separate objective reviews conducted throughout the selection process. During the initial review, external reviewers from around the world evaluated the scientific/technical merit of the proposals.

In the second review, reviewers critically evaluated presentations from a select group of principal investigators who were chosen from the initial peer review.

The final review provided both individual and collaborative comments across the three selected centers to baseline the management and science components of the approved research.

These reviews culminated in the selection of the following three centers in June 2007:

  • The DOE BioEnergy Science Center, led by Oak Ridge National Laboratory (ORNL), is studying the resistance of plant fiber to breakdown into sugars and the potential energy crops of poplar and switchgrass.
  • The DOE Great Lakes Bioenergy Research Center, led by the University of Wisconsin in Madison, in close collaboration with Michigan State University, is studying a range of plants and, in addition to exploring plant fiber breakdown, aims to increase plant production of starches and oils, which are more easily converted to fuels.
  • The DOE Joint Bioenergy Institute, led by DOE’s Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory, is concentrating on "model" crops of rice and Arabidopsis and is exploring microbial-based synthesis of fuels beyond ethanol.

Each center is funded up to $125 million over a period of five years: $25 million in the first year for startup costs and up to $25 million per year for operations during the subsequent four years.

DOE plans to fund the Centers for the first five years of operation. Performance reviews enable DOE to evaluate if each center is on course and should continue to receive allotted funding.