Office of Energy Efficiency & Renewable Energy

Harnessing Biotechnology to Accelerate Advanced Biofuels Production

April 12, 2016

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Improving Access to Energy-Rich Sugars. Ning Sun is part of a team of researchers in the Energy Department's Joint BioEnergy Institute (JBEI) Deconstruction Division exploring methods to pretreat biomass. | Image courtesy of JBEI

Improving Access to Energy-Rich Sugars. Ning Sun is part of a team of researchers in the Energy Department's Joint BioEnergy Institute (JBEI) Deconstruction Division exploring methods to pretreat biomass. | Image courtesy of JBEI

Cellulosic biomass—the fibrous, non-edible part of plants—is an abundant domestic resource that can potentially provide a renewable feedstock for advanced biofuels. A key component to producing market-competitive cellulosic biofuels lies in developing more efficient and cost-effective ways to convert biomass into fuel. Key challenges for biomass conversion include the considerable cost and difficulty involved in breaking down the tough, complex structures of the cell walls in cellulose into sugar. Another key challenge is to efficiently convert the resulting biomass sugars into biofuels. Advances in synthetic biology—which involves engineering biological systems for new uses—can offer innovative solutions to improve these processes. This, in turn, can speed up the development and commercialization of biofuels, making them attractive and affordable to industrial manufacturers.

Synthetic biology (SynBio) can be applied to biofuel production by either developing more efficient enzymes to break down solid biomass or engineering robust microbes that produce useable biofuel directly. Microbes are being engineered with synthetic DNA to produce novel enzymes—special proteins that accelerate chemical reactions—that can increase the rate at which biomass is broken down. Microorganisms can also be modified to produce renewable hydrocarbon fuels that are identical to petroleum-based gasoline, diesel, or jet fuel. These technological breakthroughs can lead to improved biomass conversion efficiency and reduced production costs.

The U.S. Department of Energy’s Bioenergy Technologies Office (BETO) works to enable capabilities in synthetic biology, as a major component of its conversion research and development (R&D) portfolio. Advances in synthetic biology have already led to achievements in reaching cellulosic ethanol cost-reduction targets and will help accelerate biomass and algae-derived hydrocarbon fuels compatible with existing infrastructure. BETO is currently funding projects that focus on maximizing the effectiveness and efficiency of enzymes and microbes (e.g., bacteria, yeast, and cyanobacteria) capable of converting lignocellulosic biomass to advanced biofuels.

This past year marked an important first step for the Energy Department in the area of synthetic biology. BETO is proposing to develop a Synthetic Biology Foundry, a multi-lab effort that will leverage the tools of synthetic biology to modify organisms and develop robust processing and scale-up capabilities that can be readily transferred to industry. This will ultimately reduce the lead time and cost of bringing new renewable fuels and chemicals to market. Deputy Assistant Secretary for Transportation Reuben Sarkar plans to outline this new initiative at the upcoming 2016 World BIO Congress.

Advances in biotechnology can help overcome critical bottlenecks in biofuel production, leading to improved process efficiency and reduced operating costs. Ultimately, these breakthroughs will help drive the emerging bioeconomy, and reduce U.S. dependence on foreign oil and greenhouse gas emissions from the transportation sector, while encouraging the creation of a new domestic bioenergy industry.