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Los Alamos scientists are working on developing the next-generation of biofuels.

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  • Nan Sauer
  • Chemistry, Life, and Earth Sciences
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  • Clifford J. Unkefer
  • Bioscience
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“Research into alternative forms of energy, of which biofuels is a key component, is one of the major national security imperatives of this century. Energy security is vital to our future national security and the efficient functioning of our market economy.” – LANL Director Charles McMillan

Summary

Los Alamos scientists are working on developing the next-generation of biofuels. Because many biofuels are made from photosynthetic plants, they tend to be nontoxic, biodegradable, and renewable. Possible sources of biofuel include switchgrass, soybean, sugar beet, and sugarcane. It also will be possible to one day create biofuels from algae, cellulose, and even genetically engineered microorganisms that can produce fuel directly from carbon dioxide.

Capabilities

Plant and algae engineering
Environmental microbiology
Chemical conversion
Microbial genomics
Metabolomics
Systematics and Phylogeny
Proteomics and neutron crystallography
Project Description

Because the sources of fossil fuels have a finite reserve, scientists are turning more and more to developing alternative forms of energy. One form of such energy, bioenergy, consists of energy contained in biological organisms. ...more...

Because the sources of fossil fuels have a finite reserve, scientists are turning more and more to developing alternative forms of energy. One form of such energy, bioenergy, consists of energy contained in biological organisms. For example, plants obtain bioenergy through photosynthesis and animals do so by consuming plants.

Applying this principal, scientists are working to harness organic materials that contain bioenergy (known as biomass) to create forms of renewable energy. Approaches include genetically modifying algae for cost-effective biofuel production to one day using nonedible biomass materials like corn leaves or switchgrass to produce forms of usable energy. Projects include

  • improving the efficiency of plant photosynthesis,
  • advancing algae production and harvesting, and
  • better understanding the biochemical and biophysical processes of algae and other energy plants.
Technologies/Applications: Emerging, Developed, Potential
  • Used genetic engineering to develop magnetic algae, thus making it much easier to harvest for biofuel production. Harvesting algae accounts for approximately 15–20 percent of the total cost of biofuel production—magnetic algae can reduce such costs by more than 90%.
  • Developed vanadium catalysts that can break down nonfood biomass known as lignocellulose, an attractive alternative as a feedstock used to produce renewable chemicals and fuels.
  • Developed the Ultrasonic Algal Biofuel Harvester, which provides a low-cost, environmentally benign, and energy-efficient source of algal lipids for use in biofuels. This technology won an R&D 100 Award in 2010. In 2012, the National Alliance for Advanced Biofuels and Bioproducts selected this technology for Phase II development.
  • Collaborated with SIMTECHE to develop a cost-effective carbon dioxide capture process that will enable carbon capture that one day could enhance the availability of carbon dioxide to drive photosynthesis for algae production. This technology won an R&D 100 Award in 2009.
  • Partnered with Biagro Western to develop Take-Off™, a metabolic plan stimulant that has been shown to improve both growth rate and lipid production in algae.
  • Teamed with Solix Biofuels, Inc., to use the Los Alamos Acoustic Flow Cytometer (which won an R&D 100 Award in 2007) to optimize the production of algae-based fuels that can be refined into biodiesel, gasoline, and even jet fuel.
  • Working to produce a high-performance version of an enzyme known as carbonic anhydrase that could (1) reduce carbon emissions from coal- and gas-fired power plants and (2) play a valuable role in the production of algae-based biofuels.
  • Applying metagenomics to learn how to adapt microbial fuel production to widespread application. One possible renewable fuel source is cellulosic ethanol, which can be manufactured from agricultural waste products, such as corn stalks, wheat straw, and switchgrass.
LANL Facilities
  • National Stable Isotope Resource: This facility fosters the creation of new, efficient routes to synthesize stable isotopically labeled compounds. As such, the facility plays a valuable role in metabolomics for carbon sequestration and biodiesel production.
  • Protein Crystallography Station: This facility uses neutron diffraction techniques to perform groundbreaking work in better understanding enzymes and other substances designed to reduce carbon emission in power plants and enhance the production of algae-based biofuels.
  • New Mexico Consortium’s Biology Research Facility: In 2012, Los Alamos began construction of the New Mexico Consortium’s biology research facility. Scientists in this 24,000-square-foot research facility and greenhouse will focus on biofuel research, particularly fuels derived from certain plants and algae.
Key Personnel
  • Cheryl Kuske: Environmental microbiology
  • Pete Silks: Chemical conversion
  • Pat Unkefer: Metabolomics
  • Richard Sayre: Plant and algae engineering
  • Srinivas Iyer: Proteomics and neutron crystallography
Sponsors, Funding Sources, or Agencies
  • Department of Energy Office of Biological and Environmental Research
  • Department of Energy Office of Science
  • U.S. Department of Agriculture
  • National Institutes of Health’s National Center for Research Resources
Awards
  • 2010 R&D 100 Award for Ultrasonic Biofuel Harvester
Publications
2011 - Ruilian Wu, Pete Silks, John C. Gordon, Ryszard Michalczyk, and Cliff Unkefer

“Catalyzed conversion of non-food biomass to fuels and chemicals: Use of algal and carbohydrate feedstocks,”

ACS National Meeting Book of Abstracts.

2012 - Ricardo Martí-Arbona, Munehiro Teshima, Penelope S. Anderson, Kristy L. Nowak-Lovato, Elizabeth Hong-Geller, Clifford J. Unkefer, and Pat J. Unkefer

“Identification of New Ligands for the Methionine Biosynthesis Transcriptional Regulator (MetJ) by FAC-MS,”

Journal of Molecular Microbiology and Biotechnology 22(4), 205-214.

2012 - Zoee Perrine, Sangeeta Negi, and Richard T. Sayre

“Optimization of photosynthetic light energy utilization by microalgae,”

Algal Research.

2011 - Igor V. Grigoriev, Daniel Cullen, Stephen B. Goodwin, David Hibbett, Thomas W. Jeffries, Christian P. Kubicek, Cheryl Kuske, Jon K. Magnuson, Francis Martin, and Joseph W. Spatafora

“Fueling the future with fungal genomics,”

Mycology 2(3), 192–209.

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