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Better Biofuel Feedstock from Beets

Plant Sensory Systems (PSS)
ARPA-E Award: 
Baltimore, MD
Project Term: 
03/15/2013 to 06/14/2017
Project Status: 
Technical Categories: 
Critical Need: 

Widespread use of petroleum-based fuels for transportation contributes to greenhouse gas emissions and makes the U.S. more dependent on foreign oil. Advanced biofuels are a promising renewable alternative to petroleum-based fuels, but with current technology it is not economically feasible to produce them in large quantities. To make advanced biofuels cost-competitive, new, significantly more efficient ways to produce fuels from sustainable biological sources are needed.

Project Innovation + Advantages: 

Plant Sensory Systems (PSS) is developing an enhanced energy beet that will provide an improved fermentable feedstock. A gene that has been shown to increase biomass and soluble sugars in other crop species will be introduced into beets in order produce higher levels of non-food-grade sugars and use both nutrients and water more efficiently. These engineered beets will have a lower cost of production and increased yield of fermentable sugars to help diversify feedstocks for bioproduction of fuel molecules.

Potential Impact: 

If successful, PSS' innovation could increase the sugar production capacity of energy beets per acre up to 30%, thereby increasing the economic feasibility of using energy beets as a biofuel feedstock and increasing the geographic range of domestic biofuel crops.


Increased production of domestic biofuels could help the U.S. diversify our fuel production, reducing our dependence on foreign nations for our energy security.


Because plants naturally absorb carbon dioxide as they grow, greenhouse gas emissions from biofuels are less than half that of petroleum fuels. Biological carbon fixation through photosynthesis reverses the combustion process.


The U.S. imports nearly $1 billion in petroleum each day. Biofuels can be produced domestically, allowing us to keep more dollars at home.

Innovation Update: 
(As of March 2017) 
After performing a techno-economic analysis with North Dakota State University, PSS identified a market entry opportunity in Florida. As Citrus Greening Disease has tripled expenses for growers in the state’s $10-billion citrus industry, data from early field trials demonstrates promise for a viable economic replacement crop, potentially providing up to $568 million in economic value. The team has identified grower-investors to install beet ethanol fermentation facilities starting in 2017. The expected yield is 38 tons of beets producing 783 gallons of ethanol per acre, 60% greater than existing ethanol yields from corn grain. PSS has spun off a startup company offering a sustainable value capture and commercial ramp-up of the early stage bioenergy research and development. 
PSS used its proprietary promoters and genes that, when expressed in plants, increase gamma-aminobutyric acid (GABA) production and yield a Nitrogen Use Efficiency and Stress Tolerance (NUEST) trait. The team introduced its proprietary genes in sugarbeets and evaluated the trait phenotype in the greenhouse under controlled conditions. The best performing NUEST plants yielded approximately 40% more sugar per plant under laboratory conditions. Experiments to quantify the effect of the NUEST trait on nitrogen-based fertilizer use efficiency were initiated in early 2016. 
For a detailed assessment of the PSS project and impact, please click here.

ARPA-E Program Director: 
Dr. Joe Cornelius
Project Contact: 
Dr. Frank Turano
Release Date: