Sandia LabNews

Biofuels work gets another adrenaline shot


Another seed was planted in support of Sandia’s blossoming biofuels program recently when the Labs snagged $600,000 in funding ($300,000 a year for two years) for “Development of Saccharifying Enzymes for Commercial Use.” The award, in response to a call from DOE’s Office of Energy Efficiency and Renewable Energy, is part of a joint proposal led by industry partner DSM. Other partners are Abengoa Bioenergy Technologies and Los Alamos National Laboratory.

Rajat Sapra (8321) will serve as principal investigator; other team members are Ken Sale (8321) and Seema Singh (8755). The work, says Rajat, will focus on the use of enzymes from fungi (organisms that grow on plant biomass in communities like rainforest environments) that can break down cellulose for conversion to ethanol. It’s a natural extension of Sandia’s current work with “extreme” enzymes that break down cellulose in plant biomass to sugars for fermentation or biofuels production (Lab News, June 22, 2007), Rajat says.

“DSM already has a well-established understanding of enzymes from fungi and how to produce these enzymes for commercial purposes,” says Rajat, who adds that the company possesses a successful industrial fermentation process for non-biofuel applications that involve fungi.

“We intend to take our expertise in structural and biophysical analysis, apply it to this particular type of fungal enzymes, and help improve the enzyme engineering process,” he says. Sandia will use various spectroscopic and molecular modeling techniques to help scientists better understand how these enzymes break down biomass. “Ultimately, what we’re trying to do is make better, more effective enzymes,” says Rajat.

Grant Heffelfinger (8330) notes that the project is unrelated to the high-profile Joint Bio-Energy Institute (JBEI) endeavor (Lab News, July 6, 2007). “It’s an important step in further establishing our growing presence in the biofuels arena,” says Grant.

The project is one of four DOE-funded initiatives announced recently. Covering a four-year period, nearly $34 million has been committed by DOE for the projects, each of which will focus on developing improved enzyme systems to convert cellulosic material into sugars suitable for production of biofuels.