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15 Years of IGB: Using biology to solve energy problems

BY Ananya Sen

Over the past few decades, it has become increasingly obvious that fossil fuels, such as coal, oil, and gas, are the biggest contributors to global climate change, accounting for over 75% of greenhouse emissions. If we want to avoid the catastrophic impacts of climate change, these emissions need to be reduced by almost half by 2030 and reach net zero by 2050. This goal can only be achieved if we invest in alternative sources of energy that are sustainable and reliable, a realization that led to the establishment of the Energy Biosciences Institute.

Energy Farm Darrell Hemann
The Energy Farm, adjacent to the University of Illinois, is used to study Miscanthus varieties, switchgrass, native grasses, and various woody biomass species. It previously provided the research space necessary for EBI scientists to evaluate the challenges that emerging biofuel crops will experience when scaling up from research to commercial levels.

In 2006, BP issued an international call for proposals to engage in a research partnership with researchers who could use their expertise in basic biological sciences to solve problems in the energy sector. Following a competition involving 20 major research universities, in 2007 BP selected a consortium consisting of the University of California, Berkeley, Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory, and the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign to host the EBI.

“The projected effects on climate of relentlessly accelerating combustion of fossil fuels are alarming,” said Chris Somerville, a professor of plant and microbial biology at Berkeley and the Director of EBI from 2007-2016. “The use of fossil fuels is so obviously unsustainable, and yet so hard to replace with alternatives that can reach the scale of fossil fuel consumption, that there is some urgency to explore alternatives.”

The EBI had several overarching goals in their quest to develop alternative sources of energy: finding and improving plant sources that could serve as biofuels; efficiently extracting fuel from these crops; assessing the environmental, social, and economic impacts of developing biofuels; and improving the energy yields from fossil fuels.

Improving biofuel production

The most important aspect of biofuel production begins in the fields—finding sustainable, high-yielding plants. The ideal plant, which differs by region, will yield the most biomass with the lowest use of land, water, and energy. Researchers predict that with highly productive plants, such as Miscanthus, it is possible to produce about half of all transportation fuels by growing it on about 1% of the terrestrial surface area.

“The EBI established itself as the global leader for understanding Miscanthus, while also making significant advances with prairie grasses, including switchgrass, and laying the foundations for leading crops including energy cane, sugarcane, and miscane,” said Stephen Long (GEGC/CABBI/BSD), the Ikenberry Endowed University Chair of Crop Sciences and Plant Biology and a former Deputy Director of the EBI.

After these plants are harvested, they must be reduced to their component elements, in particular the sugars that reside in the cellulose, which are in turn fermented into ethanol and other fuels. However, the sugars are chemically locked up in long polymers that must be broken down. This deconstruction process, called biomass depolymerization, is one of the keys to economical biofuel production.

To tackle this challenge, EBI researchers investigated different biological means to break the chemical bonds that will release the sugars. Such reactions occur widely in nature, for example by bacteria and fungi in the digestive system of animals. Therefore, by replicating this phenomenon in industrial processes and designing microbes that will synthesize desirable fuel molecules, the EBI hoped to improve biofuel production.

“That was the main beauty of having the EBI. Under its umbrella we collaborated with no barrier even between labs or the campuses. We did not have to worry about conflict of interest, we just collaborated for one clear mission—to create a microorganism for better biofuel production,” said Yong-Su Jin (BSD/MME/CABBI), an assistant professor in bioengineering.

Assessing the impacts of an emerging biofuels industry

Although transitioning to biofuels will greatly reduce our dependance on fossil fuels, a myriad of potential impacts on economies, societies, and environments have been anticipated once the fuel hits the market for use. Potential issues involve land use, food production, carbon emissions at the local and regional locations, concerns about food and fuel markets, consumer and producer welfare, and the environment.

To address these concerns, the EBI also included researchers who analyzed how land is used around the world and modeled what would happen if bioenergy crops were grown on land that is not used for food production. They also studied how different feedstock crops affected the ecosystem, including the levels of carbon and nitrogen in the soil, water quality, and the production of greenhouse gases like methane and nitrous oxide. Additionally, many in the world are concerned that the demand for energy is so large that unrestrained conversion of land to biofuel production could have negative environmental effects and could further disadvantage poor people by increasing prices for food, fuel, and fiber. Therefore, the EBI researchers also modeled how the biofuel industry can influence different members of the global society.

Increasing fossil fuel yield with the help of microbes

Although it is important to gradually move away from fossil fuels, the change will not be immediate. In the meantime, the EBI sought to make the development and use of fossil fuels a cleaner, greener, more efficient process by using microbes. Typically, only 33% of oil available from any well is recoverable. The rest is lost due to the challenges associated with harnessing oil from porous rock, and the presence of hydrogen sulfide, a major contaminant in oil and gas reservoirs.

The EBI recognized the value in investigating various microbial processes that could ultimately be used to reduce the environmental footprint of oil recovery and make it more efficient. For example, they discovered that microbe-induced iron precipitation facilitated the recovery of oil from porous rock, since the iron coated and homogenized the rock’s pores, making it easier for companies to push water through the rock matrix and extract petroleum. The researchers also addressed problems caused by hydrogen sulfide in a number of ways including using bacteria that were capable of oxidizing hydrogen sulfide to sulfur which is nontoxic.

The EBI paved the way for several important collaborations that enabled scientists to take a holistic approach to developing alternative fuels. After the funding for the EBI ended in 2014, the University of California, Berkeley, Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory, and the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign are all still actively pursuing the research questions that the EBI proposed. Hopefully their efforts will help move us away from fossil fuels into a biofuel-reliant world.

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