Sandia National Laboratories’ biochemist Masood Hadi says the beauty of the endophytic fungi is there is no need for the cost-intensive industrial processes that are typically required to break down biomass. “These things can turn crystalline cellulosic material directly into fuel-type hydrocarbons without any mechanical breakdown.”  If this can be made to work and grown to industrial scale, the processing of biomass would be massively short-circuited.

Sandias’ engine experts and biofuels researchers are working on a project that aims to modify an endophytic fungus so that it will directly produce fuel-type hydrocarbons for transportation purposes.

Endophytic Fungus Single Left and Cultured Right For Making Biofuel. Click image for more info.

The class of fungi  – endophytes  – lives between plant cell walls and produce the biofuels being investigated for the project. The cellular material in plant walls can be converted into hydrocarbon compounds that work well as fuels for internal combustion engines. Sandia is collaborating with Professor Gary Strobel from Montana State University, a known expert in Ascocoryne sarcoides and other similar fungi.

Put another way, these fungi are designed by nature to grow on cellulose and to digest it, forming fuel-type hydrocarbons as a by-product of their metabolic processes. Then through genetic manipulation, the Sandia team hopes first to identify these pathways, improve the yield and tailor the molecular structure of the hydrocarbons it produces.  That looks like a major project.  But if it works, the impact would be huge.

The Sandia bioscience team is now using genetic sequencing to catalog the pathways with other molecular biology techniques to understand how changes in feedstock determine the type and amount of hydrocarbons the fungi make, with a long-term goal of engineering greater quantities of the desirable fuel types.

Endophytic Fungus Workstation at Sandia. Click image for more info.

Meanwhile Craig Taatjes and John Dec, engine combustion researchers at Sandia, are experimenting with the main compounds produced in the molecular “soup” to give feedback to their bioresearch counterparts on their ignition chemistry and engine performance. The ideal outcome, Dec said, is to “dial in” the right feedstocks combined with the right set of genes to produce the preferred blend of compounds to fuel an engine.

The first step was to learn what kinds of compounds the fungus makes naturally on its own. “We just don’t know much about some of the compounds, so we need to do research on their ignition chemistry and how they behave in an engine,” Taatjes said. The team, he says, is working with Professor William H. Green at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology to develop an ignition chemistry model that can predict the performance of the classes of compounds made by the fungus.

This provides the feedback for Hadi and his colleagues who are building up the understanding of the distribution of molecules produced by the various fungi, at which point they can genetically tailor them to produce more of the “right” kinds of compounds that suit the needs of engine combustion.

Taatjes explains the team anticipates over time that enough hydrocarbons will be extracted from those produced by the fungus to test in the lab, or even in an engine. “We hope, in the end, to have a biofuel that was developed in conjunction with the development of the combustion model for that biofuel.”

Multiplexed Chemical Kinetics Reactor at Sandia. Click image for more info.

Dec, who runs the Homogeneous-Charge Compression Ignition (HCCI) lab at Sandia, said experiments on the sophisticated HCCI combustion platform offer good fundamental information on fuel auto-ignition behavior that can be related to performance in other engine types, such as the gasoline type spark-ignition or diesel, as well as to performance in HCCI engines.

The Sandia press release says Taatjes, Dec and Hadi are in agreement that it makes perfect sense for Sandia to invest in a project that focuses on an engine’s interaction with a new biofuel.  That could be part PR due to taxpayer support, but it also hints that the expectation is the fuel candidates might not be something we’re expecting such as simple alcohols. The biofuels may be something new.

Dec said, “Any fuel that’s going to make it in the marketplace is going to have to blend with gasoline.” Hadi expounds with, “A new biofuel, whether it comes from the Ascocoryne fungus or another source, will be more useful commercially if we have first learned how it will affect combustion processes.”  What can be brought could be very useful indeed as efficiency demands increase.

Taatjes says the aspect of this project where the biofuels researchers are working directly with the combustion experts to understand from the start just what will work best as fuel for internal combustion engines – accelerates the pace of alternative fuel development and the associated engine optimization.  “We have a rare opportunity to decide ourselves what the fuel is going to look like and can build our own optimization loop,” he said.

With molecules from one to perhaps as many as eighteen carbon atoms, hydrogen plus a selection of oxygen and other elements, this project could be very large and immensely beneficial.

“There is a whole new range of potential fuels now with biomass,” Dec said. “The new fuels will have to work well with both existing engines and advanced engines, like HCCI or low-temperature diesel combustion. Only then will you be able to sell the fuel at the pump and get your new high-efficiency, low-emissions engine into the marketplace.”

Dec might be right, but don’t absolutely count on it.  Today the latest over the road diesel engines need a second “fueling” for meeting EPA emissions regulations – a kind of blending at the pumping station.  That’s just one step from the ultimate blending location – done on board the vehicle itself.


5 Comments so far

  1. Making Fungus Make New Biofuels | New Energy and Fuel | on January 31, 2011 3:19 AM

    […] more from the original source: Making Fungus Make New Biofuels | New Energy and Fuel This entry was posted in Industrial Scales and tagged and-biofuels, are-working, […]

  2. Making Fungus Make New Biofuels | New Energy and Fuel | Industrial Scales and Weighing Systems on January 31, 2011 3:50 AM

    […] Read the original here: Making Fungus Make New Biofuels | New Energy and Fuel […]

  3. World Spinner on January 31, 2011 3:56 AM

    Making Fungus Make New Biofuels | New Energy and Fuel…

    Here at World Spinner we are debating the same thing……

  4. Tweets that mention Making Fungus Make New Biofuels | New Energy and Fuel -- on January 31, 2011 5:53 AM

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  5. willG on January 31, 2011 3:24 PM

    Enough with the carbon. I dont care where it is from. Lets expand all the non carbons like battery and GreenNH3 and see if we can come up with some others. Carbon should only be a plan C or D..

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