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Center to investigate plant cells for better biomass fuels

April 29, 2009

Cutting edge approaches and methodology employed by plant and molecular biologists, chemists, physicists, material scientists, computational modelers and engineers will be applied to plant cells in the newly funded Center for Lignocellulose Structure and Formation, a Department of Energy, Energy Frontier Research Center at Penn State.

The DOE plans to fund the Center for $21 million over five years. Daniel J. Cosgrove, professor of biology, will direct the Center in its efforts to increase our knowledge of the physical structure of the biopolymers in plant cell walls and improve methods for converting plant biomass into fuel. The funding for this center is contained in the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009.

The Lignocellulose Center is one of 46 EFRC centers formed nationwide by the DOE to address fundamental issues in fields ranging from solar energy and electric storage to materials sciences, biofuels and carbon capture and sequestration. The Center has planned collaboration with researchers at North Carolina State University and Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University.

"The biggest solar collectors on Earth are plants, which use sunlight to convert atmospheric carbon dioxide into complex structural materials like cellulose and lignin," said Cosgrove. "These make up wood, paper, cotton and many other everyday materials and globally represent a huge untapped reserve of biorenewable energy. Our new center will try to pry loose the secrets of how these molecules interact to form these substances that have so many practical uses as an energy source and a material."

Nanoscale investigations into the physical structure of lignocellulose -- the part of plants composed of cellulose, hemicellulose, and lignin --will reveal the rules and principles behind the plant's manufacture of this bio-polymer. Researchers will be looking for the "rules of assembly" for the plant wall. These include cellulose synthesis, lignocellulose assembly and the relationship between nanoscale structure and macroscale properties including porosity and plant cell wall mechanics.

Penn State also has researchers participating in three other EFRCs: Computational Catalysis and Atomic-Level Synthesis of Materials: Building Effective Catalysts from First Principles, Louisiana State University; Polymer-Based Materials for Harvesting Solar Energy, University of Massachusetts, and Center for Molecular Electrocatalysis, Pacific Northwest National Laboratory.
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Penn State

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