1. We recently spoke about the Challenge with Dr. Bradley Zamft, a Fellow at the Advanced Research Projects Agency-Energy (ARPA-E), who is working on this challenge with ARPA-E Program Director Jonathan Burbaum. Thank you for joining us. Could you start off by telling us a bit more about the PETRO program and the origin of this Challenge?
Thanks for taking the time to speak with me. ARPA-E’s PETRO program aims to develop new and potentially breakthrough ways to produce clean, reliable sources of transportation fuel. It is led by ARPA-E Program Director Dr. Jonathan Burbaum.
The PETRO program tries to address some fundamental hurdles in using agriculture to produce fuels. As is often the case at ARPA-E, we’ve turned the problem on its head and asked a relatively fundamental question: are there ways to circumvent the processes that make biofuel production expensive and energy intensive? In doing so, we’ve come up with a few strategies, including optimizing photosynthesis and metabolically engineering plants to directly produce drop-in compatible biofuels—all with the end goal of making plants inherently more energy dense.
With this question in mind, our PETRO project teams started developing non-food crops with double the energy capture per unit area compared to traditional ethanol made from corn grain. These projects could drastically increase the viability of domestically grown biofuels and, if they’re successful, may enable us to grow dedicated energy crops that would provide cost-effective alternatives to petroleum-based fuels.
We have some of the best and brightest experts in their respective fields producing innovative fuel molecules in plant systems. But, developing transformational technologies is a team effort and requires a constant flow of fresh perspectives. This Challenge will allow creative thinkers to be part of the exciting developments we’re already seeing from the PETRO program.
2. What are your key objectives for this challenge?
This Challenge is focused on finding new and alternative methods for determining the energy content of plant material. ARPA-E is looking for Solvers who can provide a detailed description and scientific rationale for a simple, rapid, and minimally invasive method to achieve this goal—one that would make a meaningful difference to ARPA-E’s PETRO program.
Determining the energy content of plant material is traditionally done through destructive methods that involve cutting, drying, and burning plant tissue to calculate the amount of energy released through combustion. Although this has proven to be an effective strategy, it is time-consuming, wasteful, and difficult to scale up. It would be better if ARPA-E’s awardees—and the plant science community in general—could have a simple and rapid method to determine the energy content of the hundreds of plant variants they make. That is what this Challenge aims to deliver.
3. What was your primary motivation for crowdsourcing this Challenge to InnoCentive’s Solvers (as opposed to using more “traditional” means to solicit ideas and solutions)?
One aspect of the ARPA-E model is its focus on engaging brilliant people from different technical disciplines and professional communities. By bringing these diverse communities together, we’re better able to think about new and innovative ways to create entirely new options for America’s energy future. But we know we don’t reach everyone. This Challenge allows us to tap into the brainpower that is InnoCentive’s Solver community; we hope that by crowdsourcing ideas from creative Solvers, we’ll discover new ways to push the boundaries of innovation.
4. What are some of the key attributes you’d like to see in a winning solution?
We’re looking for a solution that will enable accurate and reproducible ways to measure the entire energy content of plant tissues, less that from lignocellulosic materials, while ensuring that the plant remains usable for future propagation. Ideally, the method should be completely non-invasive, but we’re also considering techniques that are minimally invasive. We will also consider novel methods to determine the specific energy content resulting from a class of energy-rich molecules, or a single energy-rich molecule.
For this Challenge to be a true success, the winning method should be extremely accurate. Specifically, we’re looking for a technique that produces results within 10% of total energy. Methods that address volatile organic components specifically should be able to identify those compounds at concentrations as low as 0.1% of the dry weight—or 0.025% of the wet weight—of the plant. Finally, an ideal method will be applicable to most crop types.
5. Thank you for your time, Dr. Zamft. Do you have any final advice or guidance for our Solvers as they tackle this Challenge?
This Challenge is really focused on finding Solvers who think outside the box and can find new ways to address long-standing challenges. We’re looking for a solution that is both feasible and innovative, one that can be realistically implemented and brought to scale.
We here at ARPA-E are constantly searching for the next big idea to help secure America’s energy future, and are working on some ideas that I believe could potentially change the domestic energy calculus. So in conclusion, I’d just like to thank those who will become a part of our process through this Challenge. I look forward to reading some brilliant and imaginative solutions.