Households and businesses typically regard as waste the parts of plants that cannot be consumed, whether that be stems, roots, inedible leaves. What if this waste could be used as fuel or other commodity chemicals?
A research group led by UCSB professor of chemical engineering Michelle O’Malley has received a $2.25 million award from the U.S. Department of Energy to push the envelope on biofuels technology.
“We are extremely grateful to the Department of Energy for making this award,” said Dr. O’Malley. She and her team will collaborate with Washington-based Pacific Northwest National Laboratory on the project, which Dr. O’Malley described as high-risk and high-reward.
The project includes imaging microbial processes that are essential for waste-to-fuel production, she said.
“There is a critical need to develop new methods to manufacture chemicals, fuels and commodity chemicals from renewable resources,” said Dr. O’Malley.
Ethanol and biodiesel remain the most common kinds of biofuels in use. Biodiesel is concocted by mixing vegetable oil, animal fat or recycled cooking grease with alcohol — typically methanol, which is produced from either natural gas, coal or more renewable resources like municipal waste, biomass and recycled carbon dioxide.
Ethanol, which is an alcohol, is made by fermenting high-carbohydrate biomass such as corn, wheat, barley and potatoes.
The planet’s ballooning population, however, means increasing demand for both land and food. Utilizing the inedible parts of plants as a renewable source of fuel can play a role in meeting that demand by cutting down the resource strain of biofuel production.
The U.S. and Brazil lead the global biofuel production scene, with others — including Argentina, France, China, Germany and Indonesia — trailing behind. Utilizing inedible parts of plants will bring weeds and plant waste onto the scene for biofuel production, which could boost countries’ output.
Using these parts, however, does propose a challenge: getting past the tough husks and layers of the plants to tap into sugars and starches, which are essential for biofuel.
Dr. O’Malley points to the guts of herbivores for a possible solution.
Herbivores’ guts contain microbes that can break down the biomass. Dr. O’Malley has extensive experience studying this microbes, and her work has garnered recognition from such institutions as the National Science Foundation and MIT. These microbes are also at the center of this DOE-funded project, which is titled “Tracking Lignocellulosic Breakdown by Anaerobic Fungi and Fungal Cellulosomes.”
Dr. O’Malley explained the importance of the cellulosomes.
“Cellulosomes are multi-protein complexes of enzymes that work together to break down lignocellulose. Cellulosomes in bacteria are fairly well studied, but cellulosomes in fungi have only recently been discovered, and we have almost no idea how the complex forms, rearranges and how it ‘attacks’ plant matter,” she said. “By developing site-specific probes to target different proteins in the cellulosomes, we will be able to detect when (and how) they come together. We are also developing genetic tools to manipulate anaerobic fungi directly, which will open the way for adding/deleting different cellulosome components to see what their impact is on plant degradation.”
Paul Dabbar, under secretary of energy and science in the Department of Energy, said this project — along with five others that have received funding from DOE to advance bioenergy research — will “provide new tools to lead the way and improve our ability to understand and reengineer plants and microbes for bioenergy production.”
The dean of UCSB’s college of engineering, Rod Alferness, was proud.
“Michelle and her team have created an impressive body of work related to how processes that allow large herbivores to convert lignocellulose to fuel might be used to produce bioenergy for human use,” said Dr. Alferness. “This new DOE funding will enable Michelle to gain a deeper understanding of processes taking place within and among cells, knowledge that is critical to successfully developing economical and efficient biofuels.”