U loses bid for biofuel grant

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The Department of Energy announced three recipients of the most-coveted biofuel grants in the nation last week. The University applied for the funding but did not receive it.

Some University officials involved in the application process criticized the selections because of the DOE’s ties to research teams receiving funds.

Two of the teams that received the grant are headed by national labs – one in Oak Ridge, Tenn., and the Lawrence Berkeley Laboratory, in Berkeley, Calif.

The third team that received one of the $125 million grants, a University of Wisconsin-Madison team, is not headed by a national lab, but is collaborating with two national labs.

Bob Elde, dean of the College of Biological Sciences, said he was “disappointed, but not shocked,” by the announcement.

The Department of Energy’s three Bioenergy Research Centers will include:

• The DOE BioEnergy Science Center led by the DOE’s Oak Ridge National Laboratory in Oak Ridge, Tenn. Collaborators include: Georgia Institute of Technology in Atlanta; DOE’s National Renewable Energy Laboratory in Golden, Colo.; University of Georgia in Athens, Ga.; Dartmouth College in Hanover, N.H.; and the University of Tennessee, in Knoxville, Tenn.

• The DOE Great Lakes Bioenergy Research Center will be led by the University of Wisconsin in Madison, Wis., in close collaboration with Michigan State University in East Lansing, Mich. Collaborators include: DOE’s Pacific Northwest National Laboratory in Richland, Wash.; Lucigen Corporation in Middleton, Wis.; University of Florida in Gainesville, Fla.; DOE’s Oak Ridge National Laboratory in Oak Ridge, Tenn.; Illinois State University in Normal, Ill.; and Iowa State University in Ames, Iowa.

• The DOE Joint BioEnergy Institute will be led by DOE’s Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory. The institute director will be Jay Keasling, and collaborators include: Sandia National Laboratories; DOE’s Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory; University of California-Berkeley; University of California-Davis; and Stanford University in Stanford, Calif.

“It’s really clear that the intramural programs of the Department of Energy were themselves highly valued as the lead in partner research organizations for the kind of work that would be done,” he said. “I think it reflects the tendency of the Department of Energy to take care of its own facilities and scientists first.”

He also said the competition for the funds was unbelievably fierce and called the University’s effort in putting together a proposal heroic.

The winning teams, which are large collaborations of universities, private organizations and national labs, are to use part of the money to build bioenergy research centers.

The rest of the funds will go to the research that scientists will conduct in the centers.

Todd Reubold, associate director of the Initiative for Renewable Energy and the Environment – which brings together faculty and staff at the University to work on renewable energy – said although the science and quality of research was crucial in the selection process, there was a political element.

“In the end it was the fact that some of the other institutions had stronger connections to national laboratories, which tipped the scales,” he said.

The grant money is intended for research on cellulosic ethanol. The DOE will dole out the grants in $25 million increments over a five-year period. The amount is five times what the University spends per year for such research, according to Elde.

DOE officials could not be reached directly for comment for this article.

A media contact at the DOE, Megan Barnett, cited comments made by Secretary of Energy, Samuel Bodman, at a June 26 press conference in reference to the DOE’s purported ties to grant recipients.

“The proposals were thoroughly analyzed and discussed. The three that rose to the top are truly extraordinary,” according to an e-mail sent to the Daily containing Bodman’s comments. “The quality of the scientific teams that they have assembled … are as good as it gets.”

Timothy Donohue, a professor in the bacteriology department at Madison, who will be in charge of the DOE Great Lakes Bioresearch Center lab, said in looking for partners in the proposal, his team thought about the “science we wanted and the issues we wanted to address.”

“We were not looking for any specific partner,” he said. “It was all about science; it wasn’t about political positioning.”

He added that his team is interested in working as a regional center that will not close its doors to other interested parties.

Claudia Neuhauser, a professor in the department of ecology, evolution and behavior and head of the 100-member proposal-writing team for the grant, said the University of Minnesota made some good research connections despite not receiving the largest research grant the University has ever applied for.

“To me that was a very positive experience,” she said. “Seeing those people come together, that was quite satisfying.”