OU-led research team receives $1.28 million grant from DOE

August 12, 2011

Improving energy output from switchgrass plants during conversion to biofuels is the focus of a study being conducted by a University of Oklahoma researcher and funded by a $1.28 million grant from the U.S. Department of Energy.

Laura Bartley, assistant professor in the OU College of Arts and Sciences Department of Botany and Microbiology, will work with researchers from Oklahoma State University and the Samuel Roberts Noble Foundation to identify ways to boost the efficiency of biofuel production from switchgrass plants. The quality and chemical structure of plant materials, such as leaves and stems, critically impacts the efficiency of conversion of these materials to biofuels.

Bartley will look for plants with superior conversion qualities and seek to identify genetic variations associated with superior quality. The research project will test for the correlations in independent switchgrass populations at OSU and the Noble Foundation. The most superior plants will be used in a breeding program across the region. Identified genetic markers could also be used to rapidly screen other grass species for similar traits.

The research and breeding will contribute to increasing the economic feasibility of plant production for biofuels and create farming opportunities in areas where other crops may not grow. Switchgrass is a native species that is sustainable even in drought-prone areas. And, unlike fossil fuels that release greenhouse gases into the air, the production of biofuels from switchgrass does not produce additional CO2.

According to the Department of Energy, biofuels are expected to contribute to the overall U.S. energy supply to help alleviate the need for some imports, promote energy security and address climate change. DOE teamed with the U.S. Department of Agriculture to fund projects that accelerate plant breeding programs and improve biomass feedstocks by characterizing genes, proteins and molecular interactions that influence biomass production.
Bartley worked for the USDA in Washington, D.C., for two years and was involved with the startup of the DOE Bioenergy Research Center in the San Francisco Bay area. She was recruited to OU in 2010 with funds from the National Science Foundation Experimental Program to Stimulate Competitive Research Program. For more information about this research project, contact Laura Bartley at lbartley@ou.edu.

University of Oklahoma

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