$15 million awarded to develop biofuel production in Southwestern US

Parthenium argentatum (Guayule). Courtesy of the US Department of Agriculture
Parthenium argentatum (Guayule). Courtesy of the US Department of Agriculture

The US Department of Agriculture’s National Institute of Food and Agriculture has awarded a five-year grant worth up to $15 million to the University of Arizona (UA) to lead a new centre focusing on the mass production of biofuels and bioproducts in the Southwestern US.

According to a statement from UA, the goals of the new Sustainable Bioeconomy for Arid Regions Centre will be to address the US’ needs for biofuels and bioproducts, strengthen Arizona’s bioeconomy, and provide training for the next generation of scientists and engineers.

Kimberly Ogden, director of the UA Institute for Energy Solutions and a professor in the College of Engineering, will be in charge of the new centre.

“Researchers at the University of Arizona are ideally positioned to solve complex environmental and economic problems,” said UA president Robert C. Robbins. “This grant will help us work alongside the community, industry and partner universities across the Southwest to grow our region’s economy while finding cleaner and more sustainable energy sources for the future.”


Promising feedstocks for the desert

Guayule and guar are two plants that grow well in the US Southwest, and they’ll be researched by the new centre as potential feedstocks for developing not only biofuel but also high-value bioproducts such as rubber, polysaccharide and resin. Bridgestone Americas, Colorado School of Mines, Colorado State University, New Mexico State University and the USDA Agricultural Research Service will partner with the centre to improve research and commercialisation of these products.

The grant has been awarded as part of a mission to achieve a goal established in the US in 2007 to deliver 36 billion gallons of biofuels per year by 2022, equivalent to roughly 25% of the current US demand.

“We'll serve as a test bed for other regions, and demonstrate how to utilise the entire part of the plant to make products in arid regions," Ogden said in a statement announcing the establishment of the new centre.

"The research, development and deployment activities will be transferrable across the world. That's very important." 

Guayule is a perennial desert shrub that produces natural rubber and organic resins, the UA statement explains, while Guar is an annual desert legume that produces a polysaccharide used for oil and gas recovery in fracking operations. Both plants require minimal water, while about 85% of the biomass of these plants can be readily converted to biodiesel, jet fuel and kerosene using existing conversion technologies.

"We have world-renowned experts on guayule and guar here at the UA, and they'll be working to understand the best ways to plant and grow these crops," Ogden said. 

Alongside research, the centre will also engage in extensive community outreach. Its researchers will work with regional growers to move toward less water-intensive crops, support 4-H programming, and provide weekly enriching STEM-related activities at K-12 schools in Arizona and New Mexico. 

"The USDA is really committed to helping rural America continuously succeed, and so this is going to be great for Arizona's growers, too," Ogden said. "We have this opportunity to make bioproducts in Arizona while also educating youth about math and science. This center has a lot of cool parts to it."


Parthenium argentatum (Guayule). Courtesy of the US Department of Agriculture