Advanced Biofuels

National Science Foundation Funds Photosynthetic Biorefinery Projects

Date Posted: August 31, 2012

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.

Photosynthetic biorefineries

A 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."

The fiscal 2012 EFRI topics were developed with strong input from the research community and in close collaboration between the NSF Directorate for Engineering and the NSF Directorates for Biological Sciences and Mathematical and Physical Sciences.

NSF also coordinated closely with the Air Force Office of Scientific Research (AFOSR) and the Department of Energy.

AFOSR contributed to the funding of all origami design projects.

"Through their collaborations, the EFRI research teams will initiate new lines of inquiry and provide creative and exciting educational opportunities for young students," said Sohi Rastegar, director of the EFRI program.

Beginning with the fiscal year 2012 awards, EFRI projects must provide more specific plans that enhance participation of underrepresented groups in the field of engineering and in engineering research.

Rastegar continued, "If we want to have a competitive edge for achieving innovative outcomes, it is imperative to bring to the table ideas from creative individuals from all segments of society.

"EFRI teams are committed to working with undergraduate and high school students and with new partners, such as teachers and museums, to help more people engage in and appreciate the exciting possibilities from research."

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

The grants demonstrate the EFRI goal to inspire and enable researchers to expand the limits of our knowledge

Project summaries

Summaries of the three EFRI projects on Photosynthetic Biorefineries (PSBR) are found on the EFRI PSBR Awards page.

For more information, call 703-292-7730.

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