The burning of fossil fuels releases nearly 9 billion metric tons of excess carbon into the atmosphere each year. Meanwhile the global demand for gasoline and other petroleum-based fuels continues to rise. Clean, green and renewable fuels that won't add excess carbon to the atmosphere are sorely needed. Among the best candidates are advanced biofuels synthesized from the cellulosic biomass in non-food plants. Such fuels could displace petroleum-based fuels on a gallon-for-gallon basis and be incorporated into today's vehicles and infrastructures with no impact on performance.
To this end, researchers at JBEI have already engineered a strain of E. coli bacteria to digest the cellulosic biomass of switchgrass, a perennial grass that thrives on land not suitable for food crops, and convert its sugars into biofuel replacements for gasoline, diesel and jet fuels. A key to this success was the pretreatment of the switchgrass with an ionic liquid to dissolve it.
"Unlike the starch sugars in grains, the complex polysaccharides in cellulosic biomass are semicrystalline and deeply embedded within a tough woody material called lignin," Simmons says. "Lignin can be removed and cellulose crystallinity can be reduced if the biomass is pretreated with ionic liquids, environmentally benign organic salts often used as green chemistry substitutes for volatile organic solvents."
Current strategies for processing cellulosic biomass into biofuels involve multiple production steps in which the bulk of ionic liquids used to pretreat biomass can be washed out before the microbes are added. However, to cut production costs, a "one pot" strategy in which processing steps take place in a single vat would be highly desirable. This strategy requires microbes that can tolerate and grow in ionic liquids used to pretreat cellulosic biomass.
|Contact: Lynn Yarris|
DOE/Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory