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USDA Awards Grants to Six Regional Projects through South Central Region Sun Grant Program

Thursday, March 11, 2021

U.S. Department of Agriculture-National Institute of Food and Agriculture (USDA-NIFA) through South Central Region (SCR) Sun Grant Program awards grants up to $2.05 million for six 3-year regional projects that aimed at developing viable alternative biobased energy sources and products while enhancing economic opportunities in rural areas. The funds will be used for research activities of south central projects that resulted from the 2020 USDA-NIFA SCR. Sun Grant’s competition. The Integrated Award recipients are:


  • Dr. Ananda Amarasekara of Prairie View A&M University, Prairie View, TX, will receive up to $340,322 to develop cellulase enzyme mimicking recyclable chemical catalytic methods for depolymerization of the cellulosic fraction of biomass and further transformations to produce biofuels and chemical feedstocks. Researchers aim is to engineer a recyclable chemocatalytic system for processing lignocellulosic biomass forms such as energy-crops and agricultural wastes to fuels/feedstock chemicals without an energy intensive pretreatment, and to develop a synthetic polymeric catalyst to convert lignocellulosic biomass in one step to levulinic acid. New enzyme mimicking reusable catalysis technologies for direct utilization of biomass feedstocks, including perennial grasses - switch grass, miscanthus; energy crops - miscane and annual crop residues - corn stover and rice straw will be developed. Dr. Amarasekara is collaborating with Drs. Ranil Wickramasinghe and Xianghong Qian from the University of Arkansas.
  • Dr. Fugen Dou of Texas A&M AgriLife Research Center at Beaumont, TX will receive up to $341,991 to develop economically and environmentally sustainable energy cane production in the south-central region of the United States. . Previous research on energy cane has mainly focused on biomass production and economic profitability using conventional N fertilizer, and there has been limited attention on environmental sustainability or the use of alternate sources of N. This research will address this major knowledge gap by determining the economic and environmental sustainability of energy cane produced using winter leguminous cover crop augmented with conventional fertilizer application. This study will implement comprehensive economic and environmental sustainability analyses of energy cane production and results will provide critical metrics to improve the sustainability of energy cane production systems. This project is a collaborative effort with Drs. Lloyd Wilson, Yubin Yang and Tanumoy Bera (Texas A&M AgriLife Research Center), Dr. Paul White (USDA-ARS Sugarcane Research), and Dr. Patrick Inglett (University of Florida).
  • Dr. Omkar Joshi of Oklahoma State University (OSU), Stillwater, OK will receive up to $339,348 to provide scientific information that can help promote hybrid sweetgum as a viable feedstock for biobased industries in the south-central U.S. This project aims to bring new knowledge concerning growth, productivity, economics, and social acceptance of hybrid sweetgum as a potential bioenergy feedstock. Researchers expect to: 1) Determine the productivity of hybrid sweetgum plantations in highly controlled, experimental plantings and in operational plantations; 2) Determine the economic viability of growing hybrid sweetgum plantations; 3) Understand the factors affecting landowner social acceptance and willingness to invest in a hybrid sweetgum plantation; and 4) Conduct geospatial analysis to identify and map geographic areas that are suitable for hybrid sweetgum plantations in the southcentral region of the U.S. This project is a joint effort with Dr. Michael Blazier (Louisiana State University AgCenter), and Drs. Rodney Will, Lu Zhai, and Bryan Murray (OSU).
  • Dr. James Muir of Texas A&M AgriLife Research, Stephenville, TX is collaborating with Drs. Jorge da Silva (Texas Agricultural Experiment Station), William Pitman and Montgomery Alison (Louisiana State University AgCenter), Jamie Foster (Texas AgriLife Research), William Smith and Edward Osei (Tarleton State University), Harley Naumann (University of Missouri), Anthony Falk and Forrest Smith (Texas A&M University-Kingsville) to introduce bioenergy feedstock production from low-input, diverse native grassland species into the South Central region. Researchers will receive $342,033. This project will determine if human-designed diverse, low-input native grasslands are sustainable and productive bioenergy feedstock sources in the southern Great Plains. This project aims to answer the following questions: 1) Are appropriate diverse native bunchgrass germplasm resources currently available for establishment of productive, multifunctional bioenergy feedstock systems in the southern Great Plains? 2) Are mixtures of native bunchgrass species more sustainable than introduced, non-native bunchgrass grassland mixtures? 3) Are they more productive than native or introduced monocultures or simple bunchgrass mixtures? and 4) How does their return on investment compare to other regional bioenergy feedstock production systems, should land managers need to use these grasslands for ecosystem services (Conservation Reserve Program; CRP) or ruminant production during transition periods or when mitigating market volatility risk?
  • Another grant was awarded to study “Development of Affordable, Biodegradable, Durable, Disposable Containers for Food Service Utilizing Biomass and Biorefinery By-products.” This project will receive $342,230 and is led by Dr. Xiuzhi Susan Sun of Kansas State University (KSU) in collaboration with Drs. Donghai Wang (KSU) and Pavel Somavat (University of Missouri). The overall goal of the project is to develop high-performance human safe affordable biodegradable durable and disposable (HSABDD) containers for food services. Specifically, this project seeks to 1) to develop novel high performance HSABDD composites from low value biobased substances (i.e., biomass fibers, soy flour, and lignin); 2) to fabricate HSABDD containers and evaluate them for durability and stability; and 3) to conduct techno-economic analysis for concept viability of the newly developed HSABDD process. The final product of this research will be the high-performance human safe affordable biodegradable durable and disposable (HASBDD) containers for food services, and is expected to significantly impact an industry worth $20 billion annually. The new information and knowledge generated from this research will be a useful reference for further improvements and expand the use of natural fiber biodegradable composites for other types of food service container applications such as bowl and cups.
  • A project on “Advanced Manufacturing of Lignin-based 3D printed Wearable Triboelectric Nanogenerators for Personal Health Monitoring” led by  will receive $342,200. The long-term goal is to establish cost-competitive biorefineries for biofuels production with the specific goal of this project being to explore an innovative approach to upgrade lignin into value-added lignin nanoparticle (LNP)-aerogel triboelectric nanogenerators (LATENGs) for high-end biomedical applications to boost the economic feasibility of lignocellulosic biofuels. To accomplish these goals, the team aims to: 1) prepare and characterize LNP isolated from different feedstocks using different methods; 2) customize advanced 3D printing technology to fabricate LNPaerogel; and 3) construct and characterize LATENG’s performances in sensing and energy conversion and correlate such performances with LNP properties/3D printing parameters through systematic, electromechanically coupled characterizations and theoretical studies. The team will prepare lignin samples from four feedstocks of priority, including switchgrass, loblolly pine, poplar, and corn stover. This project will develop an innovative lignin processing pathway, including advanced 3D printing technology for fabricating LNP-aerogels to make quality LATENGs for high-end biomedical applications, which can be demonstrated as a value-added co-product to enable cost-efficient biofuels. This project is a collaboration with Drs. Dong Lin (KSU), and Wenzhou Wu (Purdue University).
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