University of Rochester Professor David Wu has received a $1.75 million grant to investigate a way to turn waste biomass, such as grass clippings, cornstalks, and wood chips, into usable hydrogen or ethanol.
The U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) issued the grant to Wu, a professor of chemical engineering, because he is one of the foremost scientists working to derive ethanol from biological waste products. Generating hydrogen gas, Wu explains, is very similar to generating ethanol, and he is employing state-of-the-art genomic approaches to study and enhance the abilities of a microorganism that has the capability to produce both fuels from farm and forest residues.
"Our goal is to understand how the bacterium controls the production of these two energy sources so we can engineer genetic modifications to enhance and control what it produces," says Wu. "It's an exciting possibility that we may be able to convert biomass we would have otherwise discarded, directly into usable liquid or gas fuel at will."
Energy experts expect ethanol from biomass to replace at least 30 percent of the national gasoline consumption for transportation by 2030, and hydrogen is a promising future energy source that can be used in fuel cells with high efficiency. Deriving these energy sources from cellulosic biomass makes them renewable, eliminates competition with food supplies, and reduces carbon dioxide.
The bacterium Wu studies, called C. thermocellum, has the very rare ability to break down tough plant cellulose and convert it to hydrogen and ethanol. Coupled with its preference to grow at high temperature, the microorganism promises distinct advantages as a candidate for developing industrial hydrogen and ethanol production processes from cellulosic biomass.
Wu will lead the new project, which is comprised of researchers at the National Renewable Energy Laboratory (NREL) and Pacific Northwest National Laboratory (PNNL). He has pioneered much of the current understanding of the biochemistry and genetics of the bacterium's cellulose-degrading systems. Along with Wu, the DOE Joint Genome Institute enabled the determination of the DNA sequence of the genome of this bacterium, which contains more than 3,000 genes. Wu believes that expression of the genes responsible for cellulose breakdown, ethanol fermentation, and hydrogen production is carefully coordinated within the cell. He plans to investigate the interactions among these thousands of genes and to formulate new strategies to efficiently produce hydrogen and ethanol.
The University of Rochester will receive $1,065,000 of the grant, and the NREL and PNNL will together receive $685,000. The new DOE grant comes in addition to a $430,000 DOE grant Wu received last year to study the cellulose-to-ethanol conversion properties of the same organism. The proteomic core facilities of the University of Rochester's Medical Center will provide the-state-of-art expertise, tools and techniques, and University statisticians will analyze the extensive data that the project will generate. Wu, who earned his doctorate in biochemical engineering from MIT in 1987, is a fellow of the American Academy of Microbiology and has twice won awards for excellence in teaching from the Undergraduate Engineering Council. He is also a recipient of the Waksman Outstanding Educator Award from the Society for Industrial Microbiology, in memory of the late Nobel Laureate who discovered streptomycin.