|Western Regional Biomass Research Center|
About the Western Regional Biomass Research Center (WRBRC)
The Western Regional Biomass Research Center (WRBRC) is a network of existing ARS facilities and scientists located in Arizona, California, Colorado, Nevada and Utah. The WRBRC is one of four regional USDA Biomass Research Centers that were established in 2010 to coordinate USDA-ARS intramural research to help accelerate the establishment of commercial biofuel supply chains based on agricultural feedstocks.
Research Focus Areas
The WRBRC has three research focus areas: 1) Feedstock Development, 2) Feedstock Production, and 3) Conversion and Co-Product Utilization
ARS scientists are using next-generation sequencing technologies to develop markers enabling direct linkages with the draft switchgrass genome to advance breeding studies to select desirable traits. Research has uncovered important new information about the control of Rubisco, the rate-determining enzyme in photosynthesis, by its regulatory companion, Rubisco activase. These findings suggest a new strategy for increasing photosynthetic performance in certain variable light environments based on altering the regulatory properties of Rubisco activase. ARS scientists are exploring the potential use of almond hulls and shells, which contain up to 32% free sugars, for ethanol production.
ARS scientists and their CRADA partners have developed a mobile unit that allows the heating and compression of wood and agricultural residues, a process call torrefaction, for the production of bio-coal. Western utility companies are already using bio-coal for electricity generation and this work shows the potential to provide lower cost feedstocks by reducing transportation expenses.
Conversion and Co-Product Utilization
ARS Scientists are working with a commercial landfill that utilizes a variety of biomass feedstocks to produce ethanol, compost material and/or biogas. Guayule, a natural rubber latex producing plant native to the southwestern U.S., is being developed as an alternative to petroleum as a source of latex and rubber and for biomass for energy production. ARS research on guayule is focused on multiple fronts including, chemical characterization and latex extraction technology, genomic and transcriptomic research to facilitate genetic modification for yield enhancement, agronomics, life cycle analysis comparing petroleum-based and bio-based tire manufacturing, and design, construction, and testing of commercial passenger tires. Additional research effort is focused on Kazak dandelion as another natural source of rubber, inulin and biomass for bioenergy production. Explorations have secured over 20 accessions and growing tests are being conducted at multiple locations including California and Nevada in the western region. Genetic improvement of lesquerella, an oilseed crop with high levels of hydroxy fatty acids, is underway. The oils have biomass application as well as other industrial uses. Castor is another potentially valuable source of hydroxyl fatty acids, but there is concern with the by-product ricin. Research has identified processes that eliminate ricin in seed cakes and identified castor cultivars with reduced ricin levels.