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Transportation Fuels

University of Southern Mississippi

SeaweedPaddock Pelagic Sargassum Ranching

The University of Southern Mississippi (USM) will lead a MARINER Category 1 project to design and develop a semi-autonomous enclosure, called a seaweed paddock, to contain and grow mats of free-floating Sargassum, a brown seaweed species native to the eastern Atlantic and the Gulf of Mexico. One of the major cost drivers for production of macroalgae is the expense of the farming equipment, particularly anchors used to hold the farms in place in a particular spot in the ocean. Unlike most kelps, Sargassum does not require anchoring to a fixed structure, but rather will grow as a floating mat at the ocean surface. By leveraging this feature, the USM team will reduce the equipment and cost required to produce this seaweed. The system's Sargassum mats are enclosed by a floating sea fence that can be dynamically positioned by wave powered drones, operated remotely onshore by a single person to ensure maximum exposure to nutrients while avoiding ships and storms. Ocean health is improved in these areas where the collection of mats use excess nutrients in ocean deadzones, reducing ocean acidification while increasing dissolved oxygen levels from photosynthesis. Over the course of a yearlong mission that never returns to shore, the system could grow over a hundred thousand tons starting from a single ton of seaweed.

University of Tennessee

SynPLASTome 2.0: Synthetic Plastid Genome to Reprogram Chloroplast Function for the Production of Fuels and Chemicals

The University of Tennessee (UT) team proposes to develop a tool that will revolutionize plant metabolic engineering by using a large scale DNA synthesis strategy. The UT team will develop synthetic chloroplast (the part of the plant cell where photosynthesis occurs) genomes, called "synplastomes." Rather than introducing or editing genes individually inside the plant cell, the UT team will synthesize a complete chloroplast genome in the laboratory that can be readily modified and then introduced into the plant. UT's synplastomes will have significant advantages over conventional biotechnology methods. UT's synplastomes are expected to result in an extremely high expression of desired genes and will lack transgene positional effects, meaning improved consistency of trait expression. To ensure broader adoption and utilization of this technology, an editable synplastome will be generated that will feature standard genome editing sites and will allow for modification by researchers using standard, cost-effective techniques. The UT team's work in synthetic biology could significantly advance the field of plant metabolic engineering and help produce a path toward more economical, sustainable bio-based products.

University of Tennessee

Development of a Switchgrass (Panicum virgatum L.) Transformable Cell Suspension Culture and Screening System for Rapid Assessment of Cell Wall Genes for Improved Biomass for Biofuels

The University of Tennessee (UT) is developing technology to rapidly screen the genetic traits of individual plant cells for their potential to improve biofuel crops. By screening individual cells, researchers can identify which lines are likely to be good cellulosic feedstocks without waiting for the plants to grow to maturity. UT's technology will allow high throughput screening of engineered plant cells to identify those with traits that significantly reduce the time and resources required to maximize biofuel production from switchgrass.

University of Utah

Low-Cost Wireless Chemical Sensor Networks for Early Detection of Invasive Parasitics in Biofuel Crops

The University of Utah will develop ultra-low power sensors engineered to passively detect specific volatile emissions, and enable the early detection of invasive weeds and/or insects in biofuel crop production. Farmers currently lose about 40% of crops due to weeds and insects that ideally need to be removed within a week of detection to prevent significant damage. Earlier detection could minimize such losses, and enable decreased applications of pesticides and herbicides, significantly increasing the overall energy efficiency of crop production and economic viability of energy biomass generation.

University of Washington

Novel Biocatalyst for Conversion of Natural Gas into Diesel Fuel

The University of Washington (UW) is developing technologies for microbes to convert methane found in natural gas into liquid diesel fuel. Specifically the project seeks to significantly increase the amount of lipids produced by the microbe, and to develop novel catalytic technology to directly convert these lipids to liquid fuel. These engineered microbes could enable small-scale methane-to-liquid conversion at lower cost than conventional methods. Small-scale, microbe-based conversion would leverage abundant, domestic natural gas resources and reduce U.S. dependence on foreign oil.

University of Wisconsin

Plasmonic Enhanced Photocatalysis

The University of Wisconsin-Madison (UW-Madison) and the University of Massachusetts-Lowell are developing a low-cost metal catalyst to produce fuel precursors using abundant and renewable solar energy, water, and waste CO2 inputs. When placed in sunlight, the catalyst's nanostructured surface enables the formation of hydrocarbons from CO2 and water by a plasmonic catalytic effect. These hydrocarbons can be refined and blended to produce a fuel compatible with typical cars and trucks. Wisconsin is proving the technology in a small reactor before scaling up conceptual designs that could be implemented in a large solar refinery. The ability to convert CO2 waste into a viable fuel would decrease the transportation sector's carbon footprint and provide an alternative domestic source of fuel.

University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee

Genome-Wide Association Studies for Breeding M. Pyrifera

The University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee (UWM) will lead a MARINER Category 5 project to develop a breeding program and enable the development of macroalgae varieties that consistently produce high yields under farmed conditions. Controlled genetic improvements through crop breeding require establishing a bank of genetically homogeneous lines that are examined for markers and traits important for domestication and production. The researchers will sample giant sea kelp from the Southern California Bight, an area of high genetic diversity. The team will assess phenotypic performance of these samples at a real-world farm location at Catalina Island, which has oceanographic conditions that resemble the warm, offshore waters suitable for macroalgae farming. Traits such as survival, growth rate, temperature tolerance and photosynthetic efficiency will be measured at different stages. The team will establish genomic resources for giant kelp, and utilize them in conjunction with the field performance observed to predict the best performing varieties from approximately 50,000 possible crosses. If successful, these germplasm lines will constitute a "seed stock" similar to that established for agricultural crops that can be used by breeders to stage model-based, efficient, cost-effective, and environmentally sound targeted genome-based selection.

West Virginia University Research Corporation

Renewable Energy to Fuels Through Microwave-Plasma Catalytic Synthesis of Ammonia

West Virginia University Research Corporation (WVURC) will develop a process to convert renewable electricity, water, and air into ammonia using plasma excitation at low temperatures and pressures. This process is different from both electrochemical conversion processes and catalytic processes like the HB process. In this form of physical activation, the microwave-plasma process can activate nitrogen and hydrogen, generating ions and free radicals that react over the catalyst surface to form ammonia. Under the correct conditions, microwave heating can selectively heat the catalyst to the temperature required for reactions without heating the surrounding area. This combination of a very hot catalyst and cool surroundings leads to overall lower reaction temperatures and improved energy efficiency. The lower pressure required for the process will also simplify the design. Both features enable better integration with renewable energy sources because the system can be turned on and off more quickly. Such advantages increase the cost competitiveness of the team's approach.

Wichita State University

Alkaline Membrane-Based Ammonia Electrosynthesis with High Efficiency for Renewable and Scalable Liquid-Fuel Production

Wichita State University will develop a renewable energy-powered electrochemical device for ammonia production at ambient temperature. This allows the unit to consume less energy but maintain high productivity. The goal is an alternative path for ammonia electrochemical synthesis from water and air without the need for the high temperature and pressure required by the Haber-Bosch process. The key innovation is the use of a hydroxide-exchange membrane (HEM) polymer electrolyte. The more commonly used proton exchange membranes (PEM) present major challenges leading to low efficiency for PEM-based ammonia electrosynthesis. Switching to HEMs will reduce side-reactions, allow the use of non-precious metal catalysts, and eliminate ammonia crossover and electrolyte contamination. As such, HEM-supported ammonia electrosynthesis may offer high coulombic efficiency and high ammonia productivity, without losing the key advantages of PEM-based electrosynthesis - operating under ambient conditions and using air and water as reactants. Unlike the Haber-Bosch process, electrochemical synthesis of ammonia can be made much smaller and can operate intermittently which allows better integration with renewable electricity.

William Marsh Rice University

Engineering Microorganisms with Diazotrophic and Methanotrophic Capabalities for the Biological Production of Ammonia

Rice University will develop a first of its kind biocatalyst to synthesize ammonia from small-scale isolated methane sources. The microorganisms will be engineered to maximize simultaneous diazotrophic and methanotrophic capabilities. Diazotrophs are organisms that can fix nitrogen gas in the air into a biologically usable form, such as ammonia. Methanotrophs are organisms that metabolize and use methane as an energy and carbon source. Rice University's technology will combine these capabilities, and develop a one-step ammonia synthesis that will operate at low temperature and pressure. These process characteristics will significantly reduce the technical complexities relative to HB synthesis and in turn enable small-scale deployment. Methane can be harvested from natural gas production sites, landfills, and biogas facilities. Bioreforming of this methane will produce CO2 and energy. The diazotrophic nature of the microorganisms will use the nitrogen, combined with energy derived from methane, to produce ammonia. Methane and air will be the only sources of energy, carbon and nitrogen, respectively. If successful, this highly mobile, low-cost ammonia synthesis process will turn previously wasted methane resources into a valuable product, while also significantly reducing U.S. GHG emissions.

Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution

Integrated Monitoring of Macroalgae Farms Using Acoustics and UUV Sensing

The Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution will lead a MARINER Category 4 project to develop an autonomous unmanned underwater vehicle (UUV) system for monitoring large-scale seaweed farms for extended periods. Compared to more costly human labor and boat operations, UUV systems present an attractive option for consistent, daily monitoring of large-scale, offshore seaweed farms. The system will routinely survey and quantify key parameters such as infrastructure health, macroalgae growth rate, and nutrient content of the water. An upward/downward split-beam acoustic echosounder will use sonar technology to monitor the longline array used to grow the macroalgae, quantify growth on the longlines, and detect fish/zooplankton in the water column. Environmental sensors include a nitrate sensor (nutrients) and a package for collecting temperature and salinity data. A panoramic camera system will be used for close inspection of infrastructure and anomalies, with images available to operators within 24 hours of capture. Real-time processing of acoustic data, fed back into the autonomy system, will be used to map infrastructure and navigate the UUV relative to longlines for macroalgae sensing. Ultimately the UUV-based system will be able to operate in real conditions offshore and over large areas without human intervention.

Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution

Integrated Seaweed Hatchery and Selective Breeding Technologies for Scalable Offshore Seaweed Farming

The Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution leads a MARINER Category 5 project, to develop a selective breeding program for sugar kelp, Saccharina latissima, one of the most commercially important kelp varieties. The goal of the project is to improve productivity and cost effectiveness of seaweed farming. The breeding program will build a germplasm library associated with plants that produce a 20% to 30% yield improvement over plants currently in the field. By using a combination of novel rapid phenotyping, genome-wide association studies, and genome prediction methods, the team expects to accelerate the production of improved plants while decreasing the number of costly field evaluations. The project will conduct sampling and testing at field sites in New England and Alaska. If successful, the team will establish a breeding program that increases the quantitative genetic knowledge and genomic resources necessary to make informed breeding decisions -- enabling the first step towards domestication and economically viable production of sugar kelp for bioenergy production in the United States.

ARPA-E’s Technology-to-Market Advisors work closely with each ARPA-E project team to develop and execute a commercialization strategy. ARPA-E requires our teams to focus on their commercial path forward, because we understand that to have an impact on our energy mission, technologies must have a viable path into the marketplace. ARPA-E Senior Commercialization Advisor Dr. John Tuttle discusses what this Tech-to-Market guidance in practice looks like with reference to two project teams. OPEN 2012 awardees from Harvard University and Sunfolding share their stories of how ARPA-E worked with their teams to analyze market conditions and identify commercial opportunities that ultimately convinced them to pivot their technologies towards market applications with greater potential.

ARPA-E’s Transportation Energy Resources from Renewable Agriculture (TERRA) program is bringing together top experts from different disciplines – agriculture, robotics and data analytics – to rethink the production of advanced biofuel crops. ARPA-E Program Director Dr. Joe Cornelius discusses the TERRA program and explains how ARPA-E’s model enables multidisciplinary collaboration among diverse communities. The video focuses on two TERRA projects—Donald Danforth Center and Purdue University—that are developing and integrating cutting-edge remote sensing platforms, complex data analytics tools and plant breeding technologies to tackle the challenge of sustainably increasing biofuel stocks.


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