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U of M project wins energy grant

They’ve been called “long shots . . . innovative energy initiatives … extreme research.” 

By any name, they are winners under a first round of U.S. Department of Energy grants aimed toward spurring “the next Industrial Revolution in clean energy technologies.”

And a University of Minnesota project is among the 37 winners nationwide, scoring $2.2 million for deploying bacteria to produce a flow of hydrocarbon fuel directly from sunlight and CO2. The team proposed to develop a bioreactor using bacteria embedded in a thin latex coating to produce hydrocarbon fuel.

“First, a photosynthetic organism directly captures solar radiation and uses it to convert carbon dioxide to sugars,” the DOE said in summarizing the project. “In the same area, another organism converts the sugars to gasoline and diesel transportation fuels.”

The university team is led by Prof. Larry Wackett of the College of Biological Sciences. It includes BioCee, a university start-up company. The university said in a statement that its scientists will collaborate with researchers at the Pacific Northwest National Laboratory, who bring expertise at using blue-green algae to capture CO2 from the atmosphere and culture it with Shewanella bacteria to produce hydrocarbons.

This research and other projects that will share a total of $151 million in grants are far from sure things at this point. But Energy Secretary Steven Chu stressed they are “a crucial part of the new effort . . . to develop nimble, creative and inventive approaches to transform the global energy landscape while advancing America’s technology leadership.”

DOE created and funded the Advanced Research Projects Agency-Energy program to support just such long-shot research. The agency received $400 million from the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act for that purpose.

“After World War II, America was the unrivaled leader in basic and applied sciences,” Chu said. “It was this leadership that led to enormous technological advances.”

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