NREL researchers launch three new projects to boost biorefinery and bioenergy sustainability

October 20, 2021 |

In Colorado, more sustainable farming sector, lower industrial emissions, more efficient biochemical production—National Renewable Energy Laboratory (NREL) scientists and industry partners expect sizable benefits from three new projects to commercialize bioinsecticides, enzymatic carbon dioxide (CO2) utilization, and cell-free biocatalysis. 

Pulling a combined $750,000 from the U.S. Department of Energy’s Technology Commercialization Fund (TCF) and matching funds from private industry, the three projects are designed to accelerate the adoption of innovative bioenergy technologies in the marketplace. 

The three projects are among 16 TCF awards granted to NREL this year. By pairing DOE funding with private investment—a 50-50 cost share—the TCF allows NREL’s researchers to focus on enabling energy technologies to achieve commercial impact. 

Although NREL’s three bioenergy projects appeal to different segments of the bioeconomy, together they underscore the compounding benefits of investing in bio-based technologies. Not only might they grow the bioeconomy, but they can also improve food security and help address climate change. 

Biorefinery economics often hinge on a company’s ability to create chemical coproducts to offset production costs of low-carbon biofuels. A team of scientists will study the efficiency, process, and composition of bioinsecticides made from refinery outputs otherwise unsuited for making fuel. The team estimates such a bio-based insecticide could have a carbon footprint some 88% lower than incumbent products and be produced at a fraction of the cost. 

Enzymes are a promising means of capturing, managing, and even upgrading CO2 released from power plants and heavy industry. Scientists are working to advance the development of carbonic anhydrase enzymes, one of the fastest enzymes in nature that catalyzes the conversion of CO2 into bicarbonate. By scaling the technology platform for producing carbonic anhydrase—and closely engaging technical and commercial partners—the team aims to promote the efficient and scalable capture of CO2. 

Microbes excel at converting the carbon in biomass into a range of biochemicals using dedicated enzymes. But scientists think such biochemical conversions could be more efficient if they are conducted outside of the microorganism, especially if the enzymes are specifically engineered for industrial use to produce target chemicals and products. A team of scientists will identify and develop the best enzymes and approaches for lowering the cost to implement such “cell-free” biocatalysis. Ultimately, the project could outline design principles for future cell-free chemical production pathways. 

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Category: Research

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