AMES -- Three Iowa State University teams involved in biomass research projects recently received funding from the U.S.Departments of Agriculture and Energy totaling more than $4 million.

The joint grant program between the USDA and U.S. Department of Energy is part of the Bush Administration's effort toincrease America's energy independence through the development of additional renewable energy resources. Only 19projects out of 400 applications were selected for funding.

"This is a big win for the state of Iowa and ISU," said Robert Brown, director of ISU's Office of BiorenewablesPrograms. "Not only can the use of biomass decrease our nation's dependence on foreign sources of petroleum, it alsohas great potential to boost Iowa's economy by developing value-added products from Iowa's most important resource:agricultural crops. These awards also confirm ISU's leadership in developing biobased products."

The Center for Sustainable Environmental Technologies, or CSET, a member of ISU's Institute for Physical Research andTechnology (IPRT), received $1 million from the USDA Natural Resources Conservation Service to research production ofbiopolymers from distillers' dried grains, a byproduct in the production of ethanol from corn. "Development ofvalue-added products from these grains will be critical to the future profitability of the corn ethanol industry," saidBrown, CSET director, the ISU Bergles professor of mechanical engineering and a professor of chemicalengineering.

Past efforts to turn distillers' dried grains into other products have proven too costly for commercial applications.Brown and his research team will investigate a different, three-step process that they hope will prove to be more costeffective. First, high-value compounds such as proteins and carbohydrates will be extracted from the grains. Theremaining residue is then gasified into carbon monoxide and hydrogen. Lastly, the carbon monoxide is fermented tocreate a class of polymers known as polyhydroxyalkonates, or PHAs, polyesters that have potential applications in themanufacture of biobased plastics, synthetic fibers and films. Partners in the project include South Dakota StateUniversity and Midwest Grain Processors, Lakota, Iowa, one of the largest farmer-owned ethanol plants in the country.The project builds on research supported by the Biorenewable Resources Consortium at ISU and the Iowa EnergyCenter.

In another project, IPRT's Center for Catalysis, or CCAT, is a partner with West Central Cooperative of Ralston, Iowa,in a $1.2 million award to study new technologies for production of methyl ester from soybeans. This "soy diesel" isgaining favor as an alternative fuel and a more environmentally friendly industrial solvent. This project was initiatedby a grant from CCAT and the Biorenewables Resource Consortium.

"Our new technology has the potential to reduce energy consumption, enhance economic competitiveness and lower theenvironmental imprint of methyl ester production," said George Kraus, director of CCAT and a professor of chemistry atISU.

The current process to convert soy oil into soy diesel, which relies on the use of homogeneous catalysts, is energy andlabor-intensive. ISU scientists have developed a more efficient method based on "mesoporous silica nanocatalysts,"honeycombed particles that speed up the conversion process and which can be more easily separated and recycled afterthey've done their job. The ISU researchers will team with West Central Cooperative, a farmer-owned cooperative thatannually processes 2.2 million pounds of soy oil into methyl esters, to scale up production of test catalysts, analyzetests and design equipment to mass produce new catalysts.

Another ISU research group is a partner with Metabolix, Inc. of Cambridge, Mass., which won a $2 million award to studyadvanced biorefinery feedstocks. The ISU team is lead by Eve Wurtele, a professor of genetics, development and cellbiology, and Basil Nikolau, a professor of biochemistry, who also heads the Center for Designer Crops. The goal is todevelop a genetically engineered crop that can be processed into a family of biodegradable polymers, PHAs andenergy.

"Plants are powered by the sun; the goal of this research is to harness solar power by engineering plants thatsynthesize bioplastics. These plants can be used as biofactories for production of plastics," said Wurtele. The ISUresearch will focus on analyzing plants such as switchgrass to identify the genes required for optimal production ofPHAs. This research will leverage ISU's W.M. Keck Metabolomics Research Laboratory established by Nikolau and MetNet, abiocomputational platform developed by Wurtele and colleagues with funding from the National Science Foundation.

The Office of Biorenewables Programs supports and promotes development of the nation's bioeconomy, using crops andplant materials to produce biobased products. In addition to CSET, collaborating units at ISU include the Center forCrops Utilization, the Center for Designer Crops and the Center for Industrial Research and Service. Anothercollaborator, the Biorenewable Resources Consortium, is a partnership among the DOE's Ames Laboratory at ISU, the IowaAgriculture and Home Economics Experiment Station which is administered by Iowa State's College of Agriculture, andISU's Plant Sciences Institute.