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Plants Engineered to Replace Oil

The 10 projects that comprise ARPA-E's PETRO program, short for "Plants Engineered to Replace Oil," aim to develop non-food crops that directly produce transportation fuel. These crops can help supply the transportation sector with plant-derived fuels that are cost-competitive with petroleum and do not affect U.S. food supply. PETRO aims to redirect the processes for energy and carbon dioxide (CO2) capture in plants toward fuel production. This would create dedicated energy crops that serve as a domestic alternative to petroleum-based fuels and deliver more energy per acre with less processing prior to the pump.
For a detailed technical overview about this program, please click here. 

Arcadia Biosciences

Vegetative Production of Oil in a C4 Crop

Arcadia Biosciences, in collaboration with the University of California-Davis, is developing plants that produce vegetable oil in their leaves and stems. Ordinarily, these oils are produced in seeds, but Arcadia Biosciences is turning parts of the plant that are not usually harvested into a source of concentrated energy. Vegetable oil is a concentrated source of energy that plants naturally produce and is easily separated after harvest. Arcadia Biosciences will isolate traits that control oil production in seeds and transfer them into leaves and stems so that all parts of the plants are oil-rich at harvest time. After demonstrating these traits in a fast-growing model plant, Arcadia Biosciences will incorporate them into a variety of dedicated biofuel crops that can be grown on land not typically suited for food production.

Chromatin, Inc.

Plant-Based Sesquiterpene Biofuels

Chromatin will engineer sweet sorghum--a plant that naturally produces large quantities of sugar and requires little water--to accumulate the fuel precursor farnesene, a molecule that can be blended into diesel fuel. Chromatin's proprietary technology enables the introduction of a completely novel biosynthetic process into the plant to produce farnesene, enabling sorghum to accumulate up to 20% of its weight as fuel. Chromatin will also introduce a trait to improve biomass yields in sorghum. The farnesene will accumulate in the sorghum plants--similar to the way in which it currently stores sugar--and can be extracted and converted into a type of diesel fuel using low-cost, conventional methods. Sorghum can be easily grown and harvested in many climates with low input of water or fertilizer, and is already planted on an agricultural scale. The technology will be demonstrated in a model plant, guayule, before being used in sorghum.

Donald Danforth Plant Science Center

Center for Enhanced Camelina Oil (CECO)

The Donald Danforth Plant Science Center will optimize light utilization in Camelina, a drought-resistant, cold-tolerant oilseed crop. The team is modifying how Camelina collects sunlight, engineering its topmost leaves to be lighter in color so sunlight can more easily reflect onto lower parts of the plant. A more uniform distribution of light would improve the efficiency of photosynthesis. Combined with other strategies to produce more oil in the seed, Camelina would yield more oil per plant. The team is also working to allow Camelina to absorb carbon dioxide (CO2) more efficiently, providing more carbon input for oil production. The goal is to improve light utilization and oil production to the point where Camelina produces enough fuel precursors per acre to compete with other fuels.

Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory

Folium - Developing Tobacco as a Platform For Foliar Synthesis of High-Density Liquid Fuels

Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory (LBNL) is modifying tobacco to enable it to directly produce fuel molecules in its leaves for use as a biofuel. Tobacco is a good crop for biofuels production because it is an outstanding biomass crop, has a long history of cultivation, does not compete with the national food supply, and is highly responsive to genetic manipulation. LBNL will incorporate traits for hydrocarbon biosynthesis from cyanobacteria and algae, and enhance light utilization and carbon uptake in tobacco, improving the efficiency of photosynthesis so more fuel can be produced in the leaves. The tobacco-generated biofuels can be processed for gasoline, jet fuel, or diesel alternatives. LBNL is also working to optimize methods for planting, cultivating and harvesting tobacco to increase biomass production several-fold over the level of traditional growing techniques.

North Carolina State University

Jet Fuel From Camelina Sativa: A Systems Approach

North Carolina State University (NC State) will genetically modify the oil-crop plant Camelina sativa to produce high quantities of both modified oils and terpenes. These components are optimized for thermocatalytic conversion into energy-dense drop-in transportation fuels. The genetically engineered Camelina will capture more carbon than current varieties and have higher oil yields. The Camelina will be more tolerant to drought and heat, which makes it suitable for farming in warmer and drier climate zones in the US. The increased productivity of NC State's enhanced Camelina and the development of energy-effective harvesting, extraction, and conversion technology could provide an alternative non-petrochemical source of fuel.

Texas A&M Agrilife Research

Synthetic Crop for Direct Biofuel Production through Re-Routing the Photosynthesis Intermediates and Engineering Terpenoid Pathways

Texas A&M Agrilife Research is addressing one of the major inefficiencies in photosynthesis, the process by which plants convert sunlight into energy. Texas A&M Agrilife Research is targeting the most wasteful step in photosynthesis by redirecting a waste byproduct into a new pathway that will create terpenes--energy-dense fuel molecules that can be converted into jet or diesel fuel. This strategy will be first applied to tobacco to demonstrate more efficient terpene production in the leaf. If successful in tobacco, the approach will be translated into the high biomass plant Arundo donax (giant cane) for fuel production.

University of California, Los Angeles

Energy Plant Design

The University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA) is redesigning the carbon fixation pathways of plants to make them more efficient at capturing the energy in sunlight. Carbon fixation is the key process that plants use to convert carbon dioxide (CO2) from the atmosphere into higher energy molecules (such as sugars) using energy from the sun. UCLA is addressing the inefficiency of the process through an alternative biochemical pathway that uses 50% less energy than the pathway used by all land plants. In addition, instead of producing sugars, UCLA's designer pathway will produce pyruvate, the precursor of choice for a wide variety of liquid fuels. Theoretically, the new biochemical pathway will allow a plant to capture 200% as much CO2 using the same amount of light. The pathways will first be tested on model photosynthetic organisms and later incorporated into other plants, thus dramatically improving the productivity of both food and fuel crops.

University of Florida

Commercial Production of Terpene Biofuels in Pine

The University of Florida is working to increase the amount of turpentine in harvested pine from 4% to 20% of its dry weight. While enhanced feedstocks for biofuels have generally focused on fuel production from leafy plants and grasses, the University of Florida is experimenting with enhancing fuel production in a species of pine that is currently used in the paper pulping industry. Pine trees naturally produce around 3-5% terpene content in the wood--terpenes are the energy-dense fuel molecules that are the predominant components of turpentine. The team aims to increase the terpene storage potential and production capacity while improving the terpene composition to a point at which the trees could be tapped while alive, like sugar maples. Growth and production from these trees will take years, but this pioneering technology could have significant impact in making available an economical and domestic source of aviation and diesel biofuels.

University of Illinois, Urbana Champaign

Engineering Hydrocarbon Biosynthesis and Storage Together with Increased Photosynthetic Efficiency into the Saccharinae

The University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign (UIUC) is working to convert sugarcane and sorghum--already 2 of the most productive crops in the world--into dedicated bio-oil crop systems. Three components will be engineered to produce new crops that have a 50% higher yield, produce easily extractable oils, and have a wider growing range across the U.S. This will be achieved by modifying the crop canopy to better distribute sunlight and increase its cold tolerance. By directly producing oil in the shoots of these plants, these biofuels could be easily extracted with the conventional crushing techniques used today to extract sugar.

University of Massachusetts, Amherst

Development of a Dedicated, High-Value Biofuels Crop

The University of Massachusetts at Amherst (UMass Amherst) is developing an enhanced, biofuels-producing variant of Camelina, a drought-resistant, cold-tolerant oilseed crop that can be grown in many places other plants cannot. The team is working to incorporate several genetic traits into Camelina that increases its natural ability to produce oils and add the production of energy-dense terpene molecules that can be easily converted into liquid fuels. UMass Amherst is also experimenting with translating a component common in algae to Camelina that should allow the plants to absorb higher levels of carbon dioxide (CO2), which aids in enhancing photosynthesis and fuel conversion. The process will first be demonstrated in tobacco before being applied in Camelina.

ARPA-E’s PETRO program was created to supply the transportation sector with plant-derived fuels that are cost-competitive with petroleum and don’t affect U.S. food supply. This video highlights the role that ARPA-E has played in connecting traditionally distinct research areas to inform the research and development efforts of project teams looking to engineer plants to replace petroleum.. Specifically, it highlights how the University of Florida leveraged lessons learned from the Joint BioEnergy Institute’s work with E. coli to directly influence their work in harvesting fuel molecules from pine trees, as well as how the same genes tested in pine are now being tested in tobacco at Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory. This transfer of knowledge facilitates new discovery.
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