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Scientist part of initiative to break oil dependence

PULLMAN — Norman G. Lewis, director of Washington State University’s Institute of Biological Chemistry, will play a role in the multi-million-dollar bioenergy initiative recently announced by the U.S. Department of Energy.

DOE last week announced it will invest up to $375 million in three new Bioenergy Research centers as part of President Bush’s initiative to reduce reliance on foreign petroleum by 20 percent in 10 years. Lewis will work with centers organized by the Oak Ridge National Laboratory at Oak Ridge, Tenn., and the National Renewable Energy Laboratory at Golden, Colo. Each center’s goal is aimed at establishing technologies to ease cellulose-to-ethanol production by overcoming obstacles using woody materials.

Each center draws expertise from a variety of different scientific disciplines and involves scientists from numerous universities, national laboratories and private companies. Each center will receive $25 million per year for five years, of which the Lewis laboratory at WSU will receive approximately $1.3 million from combined DOE programs.

A major emphasis of Lewis’ research involves determining how plants form the structural lignins in their vascular apparatus (akin to the human skeleton). While lignins help give plants and trees structural rigidity, they must also be broken down or eliminated in order for lignocelluloses to be used for production of papers, fuel and other bioproducts.

“The main biotechnological challenge,” Lewis said, “is to take the genetic information leading to these lignified woody tissues and see if these vascular plants can be changed so that their structural properties remain the same, but are easier to break down and/or remove.”

The Lewis group recently reported a breakthrough technology, featured on the cover of the June 2007 American Journal of Botany. They designed experiments to reduce lignin amounts by nearly two-thirds, and were apparently able to maintain the structural integrity of the plant, so that it maintained the requisite structural properties, e.g. for growth, development and harvesting.

“We envisage that manipulating structural properties of plants in ways such as this will aid in production of biofuels, such as ethanol,” Lewis said.

“Norm Lewis’ research is pivotal to finding an easier way to produce cellulosic ethanol in a cost effective way,” said Ralph Cavalieri, director of the WSU Agricultural Research Center. “His involvement in this transformational investment by DOE is another indication of the important and growing role WSU is playing in the national and international bioeconomy scene. Biofuels and bioproducts are a growing research focus for WSU, and the work of the Lewis laboratory is an example of the role of basic plant biochemistry research in advancing our progress into this and related areas.”

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