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Enhanced Carbon Concentration in Camelina

University of Massachusetts at Amherst (UMass Amherst)

Development of a Dedicated, High-Value Biofuels Crop

Graphic of UMass' technology
Program: 
ARPA-E Award: 
$3,751,152
Location: 
Amherst, MA
Project Term: 
01/01/2012 to 12/31/2015
Project Status: 
ALUMNI
Technical Categories: 
Critical Need: 

Biofuels offer renewable alternatives to petroleum-based fuels that reduce net greenhouse gas emissions to nearly zero. However, traditional biofuels production is limited not only by the small amount of solar energy that plants convert through photosynthesis into biological materials, but also by inefficient processes for converting these biological materials into fuels. Farm-ready, non-food crops are needed that produce fuels or fuel-like precursors at significantly lower costs with significantly higher productivity. To make biofuels cost-competitive with petroleum-based fuels, biofuels production costs must be cut in half.

Project Innovation + Advantages: 

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.

Potential Impact: 

If successful, UMass Amherst's project will create biofuels from Camelina that could serve as a cost-competitive replacement for petroleum-based fuels.

Security: 

The transportation sector accounts for nearly all of our petroleum imports. Providing an advanced biofuels alternative to petroleum will allow the U.S. to reduce these imports, improving our energy independence.

Environment: 

More than 25% of all greenhouse gas emissions in the U.S. come from the transportation sector. Because plants naturally absorb CO2 as they grow, the level of greenhouse gas emissions from biofuels is less than half that of petroleum fuels.

Economy: 

The U.S. imports nearly $1 billion in petroleum each day, accounting for the single largest factor in our trade balance with the rest of the world. Biofuels can be produced domestically, allowing us to keep more dollars at home.

Innovation Update: 
(As of March 2017) 
The University of Massachusetts’ (UMass) partner Metabolix is testing promising Camelina lines from their project and a similar PETRO project lead by North Carolina State University (NC State) in field trials as a first step to incorporating the lines or traits into their commercial pipeline. The economic impact for this project will be determined by the outcomes of the field trials in 2016, for which Metabolix has licensed the promising PETRO traits to Umass and NC State. In addition, Metabolix is working to transfer select licensed traits into C3 row crops and C4 crops, the results of which will guide further commercialization efforts and licensing/negotiations with major agricultural companies.
 
NC State targeted the cell wall invertase inhibitors (CWIIs), which regulate the transport of sugar from the photosynthetically active tissues (like leaves) to the non-green roots, flowers, and seeds. They engineered the gene to increase sugar available for biomass production and seed yield, which led to Camelina with higher vegetative biomass (greater than 20%), higher rates of photosynthesis and increased seed yield (40-80%). UMass introduced carbon-concentrating mechanisms into the plant’s cells to increase the intracellular levels of CO2 and increase photosynthesis. One metabolite transporter reliably increased biomass and seed yield in Camelina. As the UMass transporter functioned through a distinct mechanism from NC State’s traits, ARPA-E encouraged the two teams to collaborate. NC State and UMass stacked the transporter and the cell CWIIs together in Camelina and observed in the laboratory an additional 15% increase in vegetative biomass production and increased seed yield. 

For a detailed assessment of the UMass project and impact, please click here.


Contacts
ARPA-E Program Director: 
Dr. Joe Cornelius
Project Contact: 
Prof. Danny Schnell
Partners
Massachusetts Clean Energy
Metabolix, Inc.
University of California, Berkeley
Washington State University
Release Date: 
9/29/2011