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NSF Awards $40M in 20 Grants for Research on Natural Systems, Including 8 Projects for Obtaining Hydrocarbons from Plants and Microorganisms

The US National Science Foundation (NSF) is awarding 20 grants for FY 2009 in two research areas on natural systems: biosensing and bioactuation (12 awards); and obtaining hydrocarbons from biomass and microorganisms (8 awards). The awards total of $39,991,202 over four years to 94 investigators from 27 institutions through the NSF Office of Emerging Frontiers in Research and Innovation (EFRI).

The group investigating the production of bio-hydrocarbons will produce hydrocarbons by pioneering processes for chemically converting plant material and by natural microbial and fungal processes that are even less-explored. They will also investigate methods for making hydrocarbon production fast, continuous, scalable, and cost-effective. Non-food sources of biomass with great energy potential include crops such as algae, switchgrass and poplar trees, and residues from lumber and agriculture.

The eight Hydrocarbons from Biomass (HyBi) projects are:

  • Getting the most from biomass. The project “Maximizing Conversion of Biomass Carbon to Liquid Fuel” (0938033) will be led by Rakesh Agrawal, with colleagues Mahdi Abu-Omar, Nicholas C. Carpita, Maureen C. McCann, and Fabio H. Ribeiro, all from Purdue University.

    To recover more carbon from biomass during its conversion into energy-rich hydrocarbons, this team will develop optimized biomass feedstocks and a more efficient thermal conversion process, employing improved catalysts and oxygen removal. The researchers will test the idea that molecular changes in cell wall architecture will reduce the energy required to convert the biomass into hydrocarbons and will also change the distribution of the resulting molecular species. Fundamental discoveries from this project will uncover links between the physical and chemical structure of biomass to the conversion process.

  • Breaking down lignin. The project “Lignin Deconstruction for the Production of Liquid Fuels” (0937657) will be led by Rodney Andrews, with collaboration from researchers Mark Crocker, Seth DeBolt, Mark Meier, and Samuel Morton, all from the University of Kentucky.

    Woody plants, which contain the structural material lignin, are an abundant feedstock for biofuels; however, current processes for converting them into fuels result in huge quantities of lignin residues. Furthermore, lignin itself is of interest as a feedstock due to its high energy-density. The overarching goal of this project is to develop improved processes for the direct conversion of lignin to liquid fuels. With guidance from molecular studies of lignin deconstruction, the researchers will design plant cells with properties to overcome lignin’s resistance to chemical and biological manipulation, and they will develop selective and cost-efficient catalytic processes for converting lignin into hydrocarbons.

  • Quick conversion of biomass. The project “Green Aromatics by Catalytic Fast Pyrolysis of Lignocellulosic Biomass” (0937895) will be led by George Huber, with collaboration from researchers Scott Auerbach, Stephen de Bruyn Kops, Triantafillos J. Mountziaris, and W. Curt Conner, all from the University of Massachusetts-Amherst.

    The researchers’ ultimate objective is to develop more efficient catalysts and new reactor designs for converting solid biomass directly into gasoline-range hydrocarbons while generating electricity. During the biomass conversion process called catalytic fast pyrolysis (CFP), high heat breaks biomass down into gaseous component particles that, with help from zeolite catalysts, undergo chemical reactions to yield hydrocarbons. Better understanding of the underlying physical and chemical phenomena involved in CFP will help the team develop accurate models to guide reactor design, scale-up, and optimization. They will also integrate CFP into a power cycle, so that excess heat from the process can produce electricity.

  • Fungal fermentation of cellulose for fuels. The project “Fungal Processes for Direct Bioconversion of Cellulose to Hydrocarbons” (0937613) will be led by Brent Peyton of Montana State University, in collaboration with Ross Carlson and Gary Strobel, also of Montana State, and with Mitchell Smooke and Scott Strobel of Yale University.

    In a challenge to the current prototype for ethanol production from waste cellulose, this team will focus on a recently emerging biotechnology for direct production of hydrocarbons from plant material. The fungus Gliocladium roseum produces and excretes a series of hydrocarbons known as “mycodiesel.” This organism has the potential to directly produce petroleum using a cellulose fermentation process that is essentially carbon neutral. The researchers will characterize and optimize G. roseum for the production of desirable hydrocarbons. They will also develop models to guide experiments on maximizing hydrocarbon yields and production rates.

  • Optimizing fuel production, from algae to biorefinery. The project “Algal Oils to ‘Drop-In’ Replacements for Petroleum-derived Transportation Fuels” (0937721) will be led by William L. Roberts, with colleagues JoAnn Burkholder, H. Henry Lamb, Heike Sederoff, and Larry F. Stikeleather, all from North Carolina State University.

    The researchers will develop and scale up a unique, multi-step catalytic process to convert a wide range of fats, oils, and lipids produced by algae into transportation fuels that are chemically and physically similar to their petroleum counterparts. The team will use synthetic biology to enhance microalgae production of desirable feedstock oils, develop approaches to efficiently extract these oils from the algae, design the catalysts needed for transforming the oils into hydrocarbons for fuel, and optimize the entire biorefinery for efficiency and use of by-products.

  • Algae processing made easy. The project “The Science and Engineering of Microalgae Hydrothermal Processing” (0937992) will be led by Phillip E. Savage, in collaboration with Greg Keoleian, Adam Matzger, Xiaoxia “Nina” Lin, and Suljo Linic, all from the University of Michigan.

    Conventional approaches for converting microalgae to liquid fuels on a large scale have two major barriers: cultivating algae with high oil content, and drying the algae and extracting its hydrocarbon components. The researchers will attempt to overcome these barriers through a new, integrated approach that will work for a wide range of biomass. Their investigation will focus on understanding conversion reactions, developing catalysts, and using by-products associated with processing moist algae at high heat and pressure for the sustainable production of useful hydrocarbons.

  • Unlocking the power of biocatalysts. The project “Bioengineering a System for the Direct Production of Biological Hydrocarbons for Biofuels” (0938157) will be led by Jacqueline V. Shanks of Iowa State University, in collaboration with Basil J. Nikolau, and Tom Bobik of Iowa State, Govind S. Nadathur of the University of Puerto Rico–Mayagüez, and Gordon Wolfe of California State University.

    Some plants, insects, and algae naturally produce simple hydrocarbons from atmospheric carbon dioxide and solar energy, an ability that comes from enzymes acting as biocatalysts. The researchers will explore what genes and mechanisms are behind such biocatalysts and how they may be successfully integrated into a host organism. Optimizing a photosynthetic-based organism with the ability to generate hydrocarbons and controlling its production could bring about a new source of renewable biofuels.

  • Cooking up hydrocarbons in a unique “pot”. The project “Conversion of Biomass to Fuels using Molecular Sieve Catalysts and Millisecond Contact Time Reactors” (0937706) will be led by Michael Tsapatsis of the University of Minnesota. He will collaborate with Aditya Bhan and Lanny Schmidt of the University of Minnesota, Christodoulos Floudas of Princeton University, and Dionisios Vlachos of the University of Delaware.

    The team’s research objective is to develop a fast, continuous, and scalable process for the conversion of lignocellulosic biomass to fuels in only one “pot”—a stratified reactor. They will engineer both the biomass vaporization reaction and the catalytic reactions for removal of oxygen and for building larger, desired hydrocarbons to take place in the same reactor. The researchers believe that their recent advances in controlling thin-film catalysts and modeling reactions and reactor designs will enable them to produce hydrocarbons in this economically attractive way.

The NSF Directorate for Engineering created EFRI in 2007 to fund high-risk, interdisciplinary research that has the potential to transform engineering and other fields.


Alex Kovnat

Hydrocarbons from biomass are all well and good, but I would still like to see improved methods for production of the alcohols, in particular ethanol and butanol. These chemicals offer fine antiknock ratings. I am disappointed that nothing in the above, mentioned alcohols.


Building on Alex's point, it looks like a lot of liquid fuels, which due to their larger structure, burn less completely than gaseous fuels like biogas and syngas. There definitely needs to be a balance between catalytic processes for solid->gas->liquid->energy and non-catalytic processes for solid->gas->energy. Liquid fuels are great, but are they always necessary and net energy effective?

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