DOE makes largest research award in Danforth Campus history

$20 million awarded to WUSTL; $15 million to Donald Danforth Plant Science Center

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 research 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 multimillion-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 E. Blankenship, Ph.D., the Lucille P. Markey Distinguished Professor in Arts & Sciences, will be director of the WUSTL program. Blankenship, also professor of biology and of chemistry, both in Arts & Sciences, will coordinate the efforts of 16 other principal investigators from around the world. Dewey Holten, Ph.D., WUSTL professor of chemistry, will be associate director.

The center comes under the umbrella of the 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 opportunity to advance bioenergy research,” Chancellor Mark S. Wrighton said. “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. 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.”

Roger N. Beachy, Ph.D., president of the Donald Danforth Plant Science Center and WUSTL professor of biology, was sitting in the audience at the National Academy of Science when Obama announced the awards.

“I was delighted to learn that both the Danforth Plant Science Center and Washington University proposals were awarded,” Beachy said. “These awards validate the tremendous strength of research related to algae, photosynthesis and biofuels that is under way 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.”

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 Environment 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 and five from Oak Ridge, Sandia and Los Alamos National Laboratories. In addition, there are 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. 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 also is 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., and 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, Kutchan and Cahoon 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 million 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.

About Washington University

Washington University is counted among the world’s leaders in teaching and research and draws students and faculty to St. Louis from all 50 states and more than 120 nations. The University is highly regarded for its commitment to excellence in learning. Its programs, administration, facilities, resources and activities combine to further its mission of teaching, research and service to society.

About The Donald Danforth Plant Science Center

Founded in 1998, the Donald Danforth Plant Science Center is a not-for-profit research institute with a global vision to improve the human condition. Research at the Danforth Center will enhance the nutritional content of plants to improve human health, increase agricultural production to create a sustainable food supply, and build scientific capacity to generate economic growth in the St. Louis region and throughout Missouri. For more information please visit