The US Department of Energy (DOE) has awarded University of Rochester Professor David Wu a $1.75 million grant to investigate a way to turn waste biomass, such as grass clippings, cornstalks, and wood chips, into usable hydrogen or ethanol.
Wu has been studying Clostridium thermocellum—an anaerobic, thermophilic, cellulolytic, and ethanologenic bacterium. (Earlier post.) Coupled with its preference to grow at high temperature, the microorganism promises distinct advantages as a candidate for developing industrial hydrogen and ethanol production processes from cellulosic biomass.
C. thermocellum has the ability to turn biomass into ethanol in one step, but is not used at the industrial scale yet because the process of breaking down the plant’s cellulose is much too inefficient.
In 2007, Wu identified how genes responsible for biomass breakdown are turned on in the microorganism.
Wu will lead the new project, which comprises researchers at the National Renewable Energy Laboratory (NREL) and Pacific Northwest National Laboratory (PNNL). Along with Wu, the DOE Joint Genome Institute enabled the determination of the DNA sequence of the genome of this bacterium, which contains more than 3,000 genes.
Wu believes that expression of the genes responsible for cellulose breakdown, ethanol fermentation, and hydrogen production is carefully coordinated within the cell. He plans to investigate the interactions among these thousands of genes and to formulate new strategies to efficiently produce hydrogen and ethanol.
Our goal is to understand how the bacterium controls the production of these two energy sources so we can engineer genetic modifications to enhance and control what it produces. It’s an exciting possibility that we may be able to convert biomass we would have otherwise discarded, directly into usable liquid or gas fuel at will.—David Wu
The University of Rochester will receive $1,065,000 of the grant, and the NREL and PNNL will together receive $685,000. The new DOE grant comes in addition to a $430,000 DOE grant Wu received last year to study the cellulose-to-ethanol conversion properties of the same organism.