Oklahoma Receives $15 Million Award to Boost Biofuels Research

At a time when Americans are dealing with fluctuating fuel costs, Oklahoma’s scientists are stepping up the pace on research to develop efficient alternative fuels from switchgrass and other non-food crops.

To aid with the state’s research in bioenergy, Oklahoma has been awarded $15 million over five years from the National Science Foundation (NSF) Experimental Program to Stimulate Competitive Research (EPSCoR). The Oklahoma State Regents for Higher Education will provide an annual $1.1 million match. The award will contribute to Oklahoma’s leadership in the national effort to gain energy independence by utilizing biofuels.

The NSF award is a multi-institutional collaborative project that includes researchers from Oklahoma State University, the University of Oklahoma and the Samuel Roberts Noble Foundation. The award will be managed by Dr. James Wicksted, principal investigator and OSU physics department chair, and Dr. Frank Waxman, co-principal investigator and Oklahoma EPSCoR state director. Dr. Raymond L. Huhnke, OSU professor of biosystems and agricultural engineering, will serve as the team’s lead researcher working with 12 other scientists on the project.

Building on Oklahoma’s strengths in genomics research, scientists will develop methods to increase biomass yield to produce ethanol from non-food crop sources such as switchgrass. The project will also focus on enhancing biofuel refining using fermentation by microorganisms and chemical catalysis.

“I am extremely proud that our Oklahoma research universities have been so successful when competing for EPSCoR grants. The success of the Oklahoma EPSCoR and DEPSCoR programs is a testament to the talented professors and students that are attracted to our highly esteemed universities. I congratulate the Oklahoma EPSCoR program for receiving this award, which will further our nation’s quest to achieve greater energy security,” said Sen. Jim Inhofe, who has been a steadfast supporter of federal EPSCoR programs.

The award will offer research opportunities for college faculty, undergraduate and graduate students, in addition to educational outreach initiatives aimed at K-12 public schools. Events such as Research Day at the Capitol, women in science conferences and grantwriting workshops will also receive support. The project will integrate research and education and foster a new cyberinfrastructure initiative.

“This award will strengthen Oklahoma’s research capacity through a variety of educational initiatives designed to broaden participation in the science, technology, engineering and mathematics fields,” said Chancellor Glen D. Johnson. “As a result, Oklahoma will have a stronger, more diverse scientific workforce prepared to invent and utilize new technologies needed to solve critical problems we face today, such as the need for alternative fuel sources.”

“The NSF EPSCoR award is a vote of confidence for the state and will contribute toward ongoing efforts by Oklahoma’s scientists to take the lead in bioenergy research. Oklahoma is committed to the development of viable alternative fuels and other forms of bioenergy that will aid in reduction of national dependence on foreign oil sources to meet the U.S. energy demands,” said Oklahoma Secretary of Energy David Fleischaker.

The scientific leadership for the new NSF award will work closely with Fleischaker and the Oklahoma Department of Energy to advance the state’s bioenergy industry in hopes of easing the uncertainty in fuel costs in the near future.

EPSCoR, originally developed by the NSF 28 years ago, is designed to expand research opportunities in states that have traditionally received less funding in federal support for university research. Oklahoma EPSCoR is a partnership among colleges and universities, industry, and research institutions. Its mission is to make Oklahoma researchers more successful in competing for research funding. Specific goals, objectives and strategies are developed for each federal EPSCoR program, based on federal and state needs.