ORNL researchers are investigating the biological mechanisms underlying production of biofuels so that those mechanisms can be improved and used to develop a new generation of efficient bioenergy strategies that will reduce U.S. dependence on foreign oil and help curb carbon emissions. Fundamental and applied bioenergy research at ORNL includes studies conducted within the BioEnergy Science Center and the following research areas:
Bioconversion Science and Technology
Plant Systems Biology
Microbial Ecology and Physiology
The BioEnergy Science Center (BESC) is one of three Bioenergy Research Centers established by the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) Office of Science in 2007 to accelerate research toward the development of cost-effective advanced biofuels. BESC research focuses on the fundamental understanding and elimination of biomass recalcitrance—the resistance of cellulosic biomass (plants, stems, and leaves) to enzymatic breakdown into sugars. BESC’s approach to improve accessibility to these sugars involves (1) designing plant cell walls for rapid deconstruction and (2) developing multitalented microbes for converting plant biomass into biofuels in a single step (consolidated bioprocessing).
Addressing the roadblock of biomass recalcitrance will require a multiscale understanding of plant cell walls from biosynthesis to deconstruction pathways. This integrated understanding would generate models, theories, and finally processes that will be used to understand and overcome biomass recalcitrance.
Led by ORNL, BESC is a multidisciplinary, multi-institutional center leveraging experts in biology, chemistry, physical and computational sciences, mathematics, and engineering at 17 partner institutions.
Bioconversion science and technology activities focus on multidisciplinary research and development for DOE-relevant applications of bioprocessing, whereby one material is converted into another using biological agents. ORNL bioprocessing research, which emphasizes biomass conversion, combines the disciplines of chemical engineering, microbiology, and biochemistry to investigate the use of microbes, microbial consortia, and microbial enzymes for biofuels. This research includes projects both within and outside the DOE BioEnergy Science Center.
Recent work has focused on biomass conversion by the thermophilic bacterium Clostridium thermocellum and its ability to convert cellulose directly to ethanol and other products during fermentation. Studies have investigated details of the numerous enzymes involved and genes expressed after exposure to a variety of biomass types. ORNL’s bioconversion research also has thrust the lab into a leadership position in the use of microbial fuel cells for waste- and process-water upgrading while producing electricity.
Overall, these activities—conducted by experts in novel reactors, separations, modeling, and system integration via chemical engineering—encompass the following research areas
Production of fuels and chemicals from biomass
Fundamental research on biological processes for bioenergy production
Microbial fuel cell development and demonstration
Bioprocessing of fossil fuels
Microbial environmental remediation
ORNL bioconversion scientists also are actively involved in the annual Symposium on Biotechnology for Fuels and Chemicals.
Additional Bioenergy Research Areas
In addition to BESC research and projects in bioconversion and science technology, the following research areas are contributing fundamental knowledge underlying biofuel production: