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DOE makes largest Danforth Campus research award in history

Washington University and the Donald Danforth Plant Science Center have received two awards totaling $35 million from the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) to do research on novel energy initiatives. At $20 million, the Washington University award is the largest ever received on the Danforth Campus. The $15 million for the Donald Danforth Plant Science Center is the largest the organization has ever received.

Washington University and the Donald Danforth Plant Science Center will be home to two of 46 new multi-million-dollar Energy Frontier Research Centers (EFRCs) announced April 27 by the White House in conjunction with a speech delivered by President Barack Obama at the annual meeting of the National Academy of Sciences.

The EFRCs, which will pursue advanced scientific research on energy, are being established by the U.S. Department of Energy Office of Science at universities, national laboratories, nonprofit organizations and private firms across the nation.

As an EFRC, WUSTL will receive a five-year, $20 million award from the DOE to establish the Photosynthetic Antenna Research Center (PARC) and study forms of energy based on the principles of light harvesting and energy funneling. Plans are to house the center at the Stephen F. and Camilla T. Brauer Hall, scheduled to open in 2010.

Robert Blankenship, Ph.D., the Markey Distinguished Professor of biology and of chemistry in Arts & Sciences, will be director of the Washington University program. He will coordinate the efforts of 16 other principal investigators from around the world. Dewey Holten, Ph.D., professor of chemistry, will be associate director.

The center comes under the umbrella of WUSTL's International Center for Advanced Research in Energy and Sustainability (I-CARES).

"For the St. Louis region to receive two Department of Energy awards represents a great opportunityto advance bioenergy research. These awards are in recognition of the leadership roles that Washington University and the Donald Danforth Plant Science Center are playing in the development of new energy sources," Washington University Chancellor Mark S. Wrighton said. "We are particularly pleased that this comes under the umbrella of the I-CARES initiative involving leading scholar-scientists from biology and chemistry in Arts & Sciences, as well as engineering."

"I was sitting in the audience at the National Academy of Science when President Obama indicated that the EFRC grants would be announced. I was delighted to learn that both the Danforth Plant Science Center and Washington University proposals were awarded. These awards validate the tremendous strength of research related to algae, photosynthesis and biofuels that is underway in the St. Louis region. The breadth of the DOE support for fundamental and applied science is encouraging and we look forward to contributing to our nation's long term solutions for energy independence," said Roger N. Beachy, president, Donald Danforth Plant Science Center.

Altogether there are five WUSTL principal investigators in PARC. Besides Blankenship and Holten, there are Pratim Biswas, Ph.D., the Stifel & Quinette Jens Professor of Environmental Engineering Science and director of the McDonnell Academy Global Energy and Environmental partnership Cynthia Lo, Ph.D., assistant professor of energy, environmental and chemical engineering; and Himadri B. Pakrasi, Ph.D., the George William and Irene Koechig Freiberg Professor of Biology and director of I-CARES.

''We are delighted that DOE has chosen Washington U as the site of one of the EFRC centers," Blankenship said. "We look forward to the exciting research that will be carried out in the center, which will contribute to the effort to provide clean energy resources to the world. We also are pleased that the Danforth Plant Science Center was selected for an EFRC grant and look forward to working with them to make St. Louis a worldwide center for bioenergy research."

Photosynthesis transforms light, carbon dioxide and water into chemical energy in plants and some bacteria. The wavelike characteristic of this energy transfer process can explain its extreme efficiency, in that vast areas of phase space can be sampled effectively to find the most efficient path for energy transfer.

PARC will explore basic science research aimed at understanding the principles of the harvesting of light and funneling of energy as applied to natural photosynthetic, biohybrid and bio-inspired antenna systems, which gather light and carry it to an organism's reaction center where the chemistry that creates energy takes place.

PARC brings together 17 diverse scientists, including five from Washington University, five from Oak Ridge, Sandia and Los Alamos National Laboratories. In addition, six other academic scientists from universities in the United States and the United Kingdom and one from the Donald Danforth Plant Science Center Richard Sayre, Ph.D., who also heads the Danforth Plant Science Center team that has received the $15 million DOE grant.

PARC will make significant educational and outreach efforts at the K-12, undergraduate and graduate levels. And there are plans for a yearly meeting of all participants at WUSTL to discuss research progress and collaborations.

As an EFRC, the Danforth Plant Science Center will receive $15 million over a five-year period to establish a Center for Advanced Biofuels Systems (CABS) that will be led by Sayre, who will serve as director. Sayre is also the director of the Enterprise Rent-A-Car Institute for Renewable Fuels at the Danforth Center.

The team of principal investigators from the Danforth Center include Jan Jaworski, Ph.D., Sam Wang, Ph.D., Toni Kutchan, Ph.D., Oliver Yu, Ph.D., Leslie Hicks, Ph.D., as well as Ed Cahoon, Ph.D., of the University of Nebraska, David Gang, Ph.D., of the University of Arizona and Yair Shachar-Hill, Ph.D., of Michigan State University. Jaworski and Kutchan are WUSTL adjunct professors of biology.

The objective of the Center for Advanced Biofuel Systems is to increase the thermodynamic and kinetic efficiency for select plant and algal-based fuel production systems. A unique feature of the Danforth Center's approach is the integration of all aspects of plant metabolism from photosynthesis to the synthesis and accumulation of oils and novel biofuels products.

This "systems" approach will bring new and emerging technologies to bear on complex problems and will improve biofuel production and product development.

"The EFRC award will allow us to transition basic research on algal and plant-based biofuel systems into sustainable energy production systems for the future," Sayre said.

"As global energy demand grows over this century, there is an urgent need to reduce our dependence on fossil fuels and imported oil and curtail greenhouse gas emissions," Secretary of Energy Steven Chu, Ph.D., said. "Meeting this challenge will require significant scientific advances. These Centers will mobilize the enormous talents and skills of our nation's scientific workforce in pursuit of the breakthroughs that are essential to make alternative and renewable energy truly viable as large-scale replacements for fossil fuels."

The 46 EFRCs, to be funded at $2 to $5 million per year each for a planned initial five-year period, were selected from a pool of some 260 applications received in response to a solicitation issued by the DOE Office of Science in 2008. Selection was based on a rigorous merit review process using outside panels comprising scientific experts.

The criterion for providing an EFRC with Recovery Act funding was job creation. The EFRCs chosen for funding under the Recovery Act provide the most employment for postdoctoral associates, graduate students, undergraduates, and technical staff, in keeping with the Recovery Act's objective to preserve and create jobs and promote economic recovery.


Contact: Tony Fitzpatrick
Washington University in St. Louis

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