Engineers Pursue Flexible Electronics, Self-folding Structures and Controlled Photosynthesis on a Grand Scale
(National Science Foundation) The National Science Foundation (NSF) has announced 15 Emerging Frontiers in Research and Innovation (EFRI) grants for fiscal year 2012, awarding nearly $30 million to 68 investigators at 26 institutions.
During the next four years, teams of researchers will pursue transformative, fundamental research in three emerging areas: flexible electronic systems that can better interface with the body; design of self-folding materials and structures; and optimizing large-scale chemical production from photosynthesis. Results from this research promise to improve human health, engineering design and manufacturing, and energy sustainability.
…A third set of EFRI research teams will investigate the large-scale use of micro-organisms that harness solar energy to produce chemicals and fuels from carbon dioxide. Some single-celled algae, for example, use photosynthesis to convert atmospheric carbon dioxide and water into lipids and hydrocarbons. However, the realization of photosynthetic “biorefineries” that could accomplish this process on an industrial scale must first overcome significant challenges, including low productivity, large-scale feasibility and environmental sustainability.
The researchers will investigate the optimization of micro-organisms themselves and their growing conditions to produce easily processed hydrocarbon chemicals in large quantities. The researchers also will explore ways to obtain a variety of value-added compounds, whether by using an array of micro-organisms or by combining biological processes with chemical catalysis. Each project will pursue efficiency and sustainability in a number of ways, for example, through the use of wastewater as a low-cost nutrient source for the micro-organisms. All three of the teams funded will be studying the photosynthetic biorefineries as large and complex systems.
“Having robust scaling and control principles using a systems approach is critical to making photosynthetic biorefineries of the future productive and efficient,” said George Antos, the coordinating program officer for these EFRI projects. “Using photosynthetic biorefineries as a significant source of chemicals and fuels would not only reduce greenhouse gases, but it would enhance the nation’s energy security, as these products are currently made mainly from petroleum. Oil from algae is a reality, however there is much fundamental science that needs to be done before a true industry is founded, and these EFRI researchers will help make that happen.” READ MORE List of projects
Photosynthetic Biorefineries (PSBR) Awards
The Emerging Frontiers in Research and Innovation (EFRI) office awarded 15 grants in FY 2012, including the following 3 on the topic of Photosynthetic Biorefineries (PSBR):
Micro-laboratory for microalgae
The project “Microalgae Lab-on-Chip Photobioreactor Platform for Genetic Screening and Metabolic Analysis Leading to Scalable Biofuel Production” (1240478) will be led by Arum Han of Texas A&M University (TAMU), in collaboration with Timothy Devarenne of TAMU, Tzachi Samocha of TAMU – Corpus Christi, David Stern of the Boyce Thompson Institute for Plant Research and Cornell University, and Jefferson Tester of Cornell University.
The ideal microalga and cultivation practices for hydrocarbon biofuel production have yet to be found. To advance this goal, EFRI researchers will create a unique microfluidic “lab-on-a-chip” platform to finely analyze microalgae growth and behavior over time. Using the microfluidic platform, the researchers will rapidly screen a variety of microalgae under various growing conditions. The microalgae to be tested will be fast-growing species that have gained the ability to produce large amounts of useful hydrocarbons thanks to genetic material from Botryococcus braunii. The most promising microalgae strains will be evaluated at pilot-scale for hydrocarbon production and environmental factors. In the end, a life-cycle assessment, with consideration for cost, sustainability, and scalability, will guide the selection of microalgae strains for future industrial-level biofuel production.
Wastewater to chemical commodities
The project “Cyanobacterial Biorefineries” (1240268) will be led by Brian Pfleger in collaboration with Christos Maravelias, Katherine McMahon, and Thatcher Root, all from the University of Wisconsin-Madison.
This project at University of Wisconsin-Madison will investigate biorefineries based on photosynthetic cyanobacteria (blue-green algae), examining the steps from genetic engineering to the industrial production of chemicals and fuels. The EFRI researchers will engineer strains of cyanobacteria, study them in laboratory-scale bioreactors, and create models for larger scale processes, including the integration of biological and chemical catalysis process steps. The team will explore various financial and environmental factors, such as the use of municipal wastewater as a nutrient source for the cyanobacteria. With systems-level optimization methods, the project ultimately aims to guide how the chemical industry chooses biorefinery locations and target chemicals so that a chemical economy based on photosynthetic cyanobacteria may be feasible and sustainable.
Direction for diatom production
The project “The Diatom-based Photosynthetic Biorefinery” (1240488) will be led by Gregory Rorrer in collaboration with Debra Gale, Christine Kelly, Bettye Maddux, and Antonio Torres, all of Oregon State University.
Adopting an integrated approach, this project will harness the unique biosynthetic capacity of the diatom — a type of algae that extracts plentiful silicate from the ocean to create cell walls of nanostructured silica. Photosynthetic diatoms have the potential to make three diverse product streams: hydrocarbons for chemicals and fuels; the polymer chitin and its monomer glucosamine for biomedical and food applications; and silica-based nanomaterials with a range of properties and applications. The EFRI researchers will identify the cellular processes and cultivation strategies that will enable the biosynthesis of these products to take place in a flexible manner. With this new understanding of the bioprocess engineering, the team will design scalable systems for a future diatom-based photosynthetic biorefinery, and they will use life-cycle analysis and techno-economic analysis to assess its ultimate sustainability. READ MORE