Penn State research on biofuel feedstocks will support new center

January 19, 2011

University Park, Pa. -- Penn State plant scientists will conduct research to explore the development of cropping systems for the production of renewable biofuels, as part of a newly announced center.

The nonprofit Center for Sustainable Energy Farming was founded by Global Clean Energy Holdings Inc. of Los Angeles, Calif., a company that specializes in eco-friendly biofuel feedstock research and sustainable agriculture cultivation, production and distribution.

The center will use the latest techniques to perform plant-science research aimed at developing sustainable energy-farming systems of the future. Organizers said the center will strive to increase agricultural production, create a sustainable feedstock supply, reduce the use of pesticides, water and fertilizer, and develop new and sustainable biofuels.

"Following the triple-bottom-line concept of 'people, planet, profit,' the center intends to help farming communities, contribute to reduction of carbon emissions and increase the profitability of energy farms through the application of plant science and biotechnology," said Mark Guiltinan, professor of plant molecular biology in Penn State's College of Agricultural Sciences, who will serve as the center's chief scientific officer.

Initially, the center will focus on jatropha as a feedstock species for the development of bioenergy farms. Jatropha is of particular interest for its fast growth habit and high-quality oil, which is suitable for production of biodiesel and bio-jetfuel.

Jatropha is a nonfood, tropical plant that is capable of growing on marginal soils with minimal inputs of agrichemicals, fertilizers and water. The center's goal is to increase jatropha farming productivity by 200 percent within 10 years, through a combination of plant biotechnology, breeding and agronomic research, while developing growing methods that are environmentally friendly.

"Besides jatropha's potential benefits for large transportation and agricultural concerns, we believe it also can be a source of additional income and local fuel for small farmers and communities in many poor regions of the tropics," said Siela Maximova, research associate professor in the College of Agricultural Sciences and the center's research programs director.

The center will raise funding from new industry partnerships and will seek grants and donations from private and public agencies supporting plant science and international development projects. In turn, the center will provide grants to interdisciplinary collaborating scientists and support their work by providing access to a research field station in Yucatan, Mexico. Currently, the field station is supported by funding from Global Clean Energy Holdings.

"This center dovetails with our company's mission, which is to provide low-cost and socially responsible energy sources to the world market while leaving the environment cleaner than we found it," said Richard Palmer, chief executive officer of Global Clean Energy Holdings.

Guiltinan noted that the center will help to bring together industry and scientific partners and provide a research platform from which a new generation of biofuels can be sustainably produced.

"Developing truly sustainable biofuel-feedstock production systems will take the coordinated efforts of scientists with expertise in a wide array of interdisciplinary fields such as plant genetics and breeding, entomology, soil sciences, agronomy, plant pathology, and environmental and social sciences," he added.

Studies sponsored by the center will build on jatropha research Penn State faculty have conducted in the last three years, funded in part by Ben Franklin Technology Partners' Translation Research in Energy Support Program. During that time, scientists have established tissue-culture and greenhouse propagation systems, developed a genetic transformation system and isolated key genes for oil biosynthesis.

Maximova said other Penn State faculty members and students will have opportunities to participate in the center's research initiatives through future sponsored research programs, and the center hopes to provide graduate assistantships and research funds to attract collaborators.

  • Mark Guiltinan, professor of plant molecular biology, inspects jatropha plants in a Penn State greenhouse.

    IMAGE: Penn State
Last Updated May 18, 2012