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Transportation Fuels

Iowa State University

High-throughput, High-resolution Phenotyping of Nitrogen Use Efficiency Using Coupled In-plant and In-soil Sensors

Iowa State University (ISU) will develop new sensors that measure the amount of nitrogen in soils and plants multiple times per day throughout the growing season. Nitrogen fertilizer is the largest energy input to U.S. corn production. However, its use is inefficient due to a lack of low-cost, effective nitrogen sensors. Year-to-year variation in nitrogen mineralization, due to differences in soil water and temperature, creates tremendous uncertainty about the proper fertilizer input and can cause farmers to over-apply. As a result, nitrogen fertilizer is lost from croplands to the surrounding environment where it pollutes air and water resources. To address this problem, the team will develop a novel silicon microneedle in-plant nitrogen sensor and a microfluidic soil nitrogen sensor. The microscale needles can be inserted into multiple sites of the plant to provide frequent and accurate monitoring of nitrate uptake, and for the first time provide a view of plant nitrogen use as the plant and roots develop. The team will also develop an automated microfluidic sensor which will measure the amount of nitrate in soil by extracting very small amounts of solution from the soil. The microfludic technology on which soil sensors are based can be produced at low cost. The combination of these two sensors will allow for a deeper understanding of plant nitrogen use and how it correlates with nitrate levels in the soil. These new sensors will accelerate the effort to identify, select, and breed new crops with improved nitrogen use efficiency. And the project will help increase the energy efficiency of our agriculture systems while reducing input costs, greenhouse gas emissions, and nitrate pollution of aquatic ecosystems.

Kampachi Farms, LLC

Blue Fields: Offshore Single Point Mooring Array for Efficient, High-Yield Macroalgal Production

The Kampachi Farms team will lead a MARINER Category 1 project to design and develop technologies to deliver deep seawater nutrients to a novel macroalgae production farm concept suitable for deployment in tropical and subtropical deep ocean environments. The superstructure of macroalgae farms typically consists of an anchor grid that tethers the farm in a fixed location and orientation. The Kampachi Farms team aims to disrupt this model by designing a macroalgae array anchored by a single-point mooring, or anchor point. Single-point mooring will allow the farm to align itself with the current, drastically reducing stress loads and improving the efficiency of nutrient dispersal. Additionally, the team has proposed a low-cost upwelling system to deliver nutrients from deeper waters to the macroalgae farm above to solve the issue of low nutrient content surface waters that would slow macroalgae growth. Since the nutrients will always flow downcurrent, and the farm self-aligns itself in that direction, the upwelled nutrients will be more efficiently dispersed across the array. The team believes that these elements, when tested and refined together, can reduce the capital and operating cost of macroalgae cultivation, while increasing the range of deployment into a large swath of the U.S. Exclusive Economic Zone that is currently inhospitable to commercial macroalgae cultivation because of the high costs to moor arrays and the lack of nutrients in surface waters.

LanzaTech, Inc.

Innovative Bioreactor Designs for Process Intensification in Biological Natural Gas Conversion

LanzaTech will combine methane fermentation expertise, experimental bioreactor characterization, as well as advanced simulation and modeling to develop a novel gas fermentation system that can significantly improve gas to liquid mass transfer, or the rate at which methane gas is delivered to a biocatalyst. This unique bioreactor concept seeks to efficiently transfer methane to microbial biocatalysts by reducing the energy demand required for high transfer rates. Although methane is a flammable gas, the new technology also maintains the safe operation necessary for a small-scale conversion process. This bioreactor design would significantly reduce capital and operating costs, enabling small-scale deployment of fuel production from remote natural gas sources. LanzaTech's new gas fermentation system could help produce liquid fuel at a cost of less than $2 per gallon of gasoline equivalent.

Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory

Associated Particle Imaging (API) for Non-invasive Determination of Carbon Distribution in Soil

Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory (LBNL) will develop a field-deployable instrument that can measure the distribution of carbon in soil using neutron scattering techniques. The system will use the Associated Particle Imaging (API) technique to determine the three-dimensional carbon distribution with a spatial resolution on the order of several centimeters. A compact, portable neutron generator emits neutrons that excite carbon and other nuclei. The excited carbon isotopes emit gamma rays that can be detected above the ground with spectroscopic detectors and used as a proxy to estimate the amount of carbon in the soil. Neutron exposure at the applied rates from the instrument will not damage plants or affect their growth rates, and protocols for safe operation of the system will be developed in consultation with radiation health personnel. The advantage of API is that it can spatially map the carbon distribution in soil more accurately than other imaging methods that heavily favor the top layers of soil. The spatial resolution of API will allow the measurement of changes in carbon fraction related to depth and changes associated with plant root architecture and soil porosity. Since repeated measurements are possible over the growing season, the API system will provide a bridge to understanding soil carbon sequestration. If successful, API data will enable the optimization of soil management practices as well as the opportunity to optimize plants for specific traits, such as larger root mass, and deeper roots.

Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory

PEPMase - Enzyme Engineering for Direct Methane Conversion

Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory (LBNL) is genetically engineering a bacterium called Methylococcus in order to produce an enzyme that binds methane with a common fuel precursor to create a liquid fuel. This process relies on methylation, a reaction that requires no oxygen or energy inputs but has never been applied to methane conversion." First, LBNL will construct a unique enzyme called a "PEP methylase" from an existing enzyme. The team will then bioengineer new metabolic pathways for assimilating methane and conversion to liquid fuels.

Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory

Integrated Imaging and Modeling Toolbox for Accelerated Development of Root-focused Crops at Field Scales

Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory (LBNL) will develop an imaging-modeling toolbox to aid in the development of more efficient crops at field scales. The approach is based on a root phenotyping method called Tomographic Electrical Rhizosphere Imaging (TERI). TERI works by applying a small electrical signal to a plant, then measuring the impedance responses through the roots and correlating those responses to root and soil properties. Key target traits of the LBNL project include root mass, root surface area, rooting depth, root distribution in soil, and soil moisture content and texture. The TERI technology will be sensitive enough to distinguish between various plant varieties. The process is minimally invasive, and by doing repeated TERI measurements over the growing season, critical root architectural traits and their dynamic changes over time can be quantified for a range of soil conditions. From laboratory studies, LBNL and its partners will integrate hardware and software tools to develop a field deployable instrument based on the TERI technology. LBNL is partnered with the Noble Foundation to apply the TERI technology to wheat breeding and identify wheat varieties with improved root characteristics, and also link visible above-ground phenotypes with the desired root characteristics. The team will utilize the TERI technology to characterize plants in both controlled laboratory and field studies, and use the data generated to improve ecological models predicting plant performance in the environment.

Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory

Folium - Developing Tobacco as a Platform For Foliar Synthesis of High-Density Liquid Fuels

Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory (LBNL) is modifying tobacco to enable it to directly produce fuel molecules in its leaves for use as a biofuel. Tobacco is a good crop for biofuels production because it is an outstanding biomass crop, has a long history of cultivation, does not compete with the national food supply, and is highly responsive to genetic manipulation. LBNL will incorporate traits for hydrocarbon biosynthesis from cyanobacteria and algae, and enhance light utilization and carbon uptake in tobacco, improving the efficiency of photosynthesis so more fuel can be produced in the leaves. The tobacco-generated biofuels can be processed for gasoline, jet fuel, or diesel alternatives. LBNL is also working to optimize methods for planting, cultivating and harvesting tobacco to increase biomass production several-fold over the level of traditional growing techniques.

Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory

Development of an Integrated Microbial Electrocatalytic (MEC) System for Liquid Biofuel Production from CO2

Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory (LBNL) is improving the natural ability of a common soil bacteria called Ralstonia eutropha to use hydrogen and carbon dioxide for biofuel production. First, LBNL is genetically modifying the bacteria to produce biofuel at higher concentrations. Then, LBNL is using renewable electricity obtained from solar, wind, or wave power to produce high amounts of hydrogen in the presence of the bacteria--increasing the organism's access to its energy source and improving the efficiency of the biofuel-creation process. Finally, LBNL is tethering electrocatalysts to the bacteria's surface which will further accelerate the rate at which the organism creates biofuel. LBNL is also developing a chemical method to transform the biofuel that the bacteria produce into ready-to-use jet fuel.

Makai Ocean Engineering, Inc.

Modeling the Performance and Impact of Macroalgae Farming

Makai Ocean Engineering will lead a MARINER Category 3 project to develop tools to simulate the biological and structural performance of offshore macroalgae systems. Macroalgae farming systems will require significant capital and operating costs. Investment and management decisions can be guided by the development of advanced modeling tools to help better understand the nature of macroalgae production for profitable operation. Makai's project will result in a hydrodynamic-mechanical model which simulates forces on offshore algae structures from to waves and currents. Output from the model will be used to size primary components of the offshore systems, and to create cost estimates based on these components. Several scenarios will be modeled for varying wave sizes, water depths, and currents, and thus the results will inform trends in system cost versus oceanographic conditions. These trends will be used to determine the capital cost required per hectare of farm. Additionally, a three-dimensional and time-varying ocean circulation and biological algae model will be developed to simulate the transport, mixing, and consumption of nutrients and resulting algae growth rates. Multiple algae farm configurations will be modeled to gain an understanding of the tradeoffs between system size and nutrient supply requirements. Modeling tools like Makai's system will be critical for designing macroalgae farm components and systems which meet target costs and harvest yields to make them commercial viable and scalable.

Marine BioEnergy, Inc.

Disruptive Supplies of Affordable Biomass Feedstock Grown in the Open Ocean

The team led by Marine BioEnergy will develop an open ocean cultivation system for macroalgae biomass, which can be converted to biocrude. Giant kelp is one of the fastest growing sources of biomass, and the open ocean surface water is an immense, untapped region for growing kelp. However, kelp does not grow in the open ocean because it needs to attach to a hard surface, typically less than 40 meters deep. Kelp also needs nutrients that are only available in deep water or near shore but not on the surface of the open ocean. To overcome these obstacles, the team proposes to build inexpensive underwater drones that will tow large grids, to which the kelp is attached. These autonomous drones will be capable of towing the farms from sunlight-rich surface water during the day to nutrient-rich deep water during the night, and will submerge the farms to avoid storms and passing ships. A prerequisite for this vision will be successful demonstration of depth-cycling kelp plants from the surface to the deep ocean. Working with researchers at the University of Southern California, Wrigley Institute for Environmental Studies, Marine BioEnergy will develop and deploy first-of-kind technology to assess and apply this unique concept of kelp depth-cycling for deep water nutrient uptake to kelp production. Researchers at Pacific Northwest National Laboratory will convert this kelp to biocrude and document the quality. This technology could enable large-scale energy crop production in many regions of the open ocean, with an initial focus on the U.S. Exclusive Economic Zone off California.

Marine Biological Laboratory

Development of Techniques for Tropical Seaweed Cultivation

The Marine Biological Laboratory (MBL), located at Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution, will lead a MARINER Category 1 project to design and develop a cultivation system for the tropical seaweed Eucheuma isiforme to produce biomass for biofuels. Eucheuma is a commercially valuable species of "red" macroalgae, primarily cultivated in Asia, which has been difficult to propagate in a cost-effective manner. Cultivation of Eucheuma is labor intensive -- making up almost 70% of the production costs -- and is limited to easily accessible areas near shore. The MBL team will design and development a farm system that will mechanize the seeding and harvesting process to drastically reduce labor costs, and allow farms to be deployed in offshore areas to greatly expand large-scale production and increase biomass yield per dollar of capital. The ultimate goal of the project is to cost-effectively produce biomass in underutilized areas of the Gulf of Mexico and tropical U.S. Exclusive Economic Zones where year-round production is possible. MBL will investigate opportunities to deploy an experimental farm in Puerto Rico where a wide range of exposure to prevailing winds and waves creates an ideal testbed to understand the influence of environmental conditions on biological, physiological, and chemical properties of cultivated macroalgae. If successful, the project can disrupt the current practices in the red macroalgae market and reduce reliance on imports from foreign sources, and ultimately scale to production levels relevant for bioenergy production.

Massachusetts Institute of Technology

Engineering Ralstonia eutropha for Production of Isobutanol (IBT) Motor Fuel from CO2, Hydrogen, and Oxygen

Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) is using solar-derived hydrogen and common soil bacteria called Ralstonia eutropha to turn carbon dioxide (CO2) directly into biofuel. This bacteria already has the natural ability to use hydrogen and CO2 for growth. MIT is engineering the bacteria to use hydrogen to convert CO2 directly into liquid transportation fuels. Hydrogen is a flammable gas, so the MIT team is building an innovative reactor system that will safely house the bacteria and gas mixture during the fuel-creation process. The system will pump in precise mixtures of hydrogen, oxygen, and CO2, and the online fuel-recovery system will continuously capture and remove the biofuel product.

Massachusetts Institute of Technology

Bioprocess and Microbe Engineering for Total Carbon Utilization in Biofuel Production

Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) is using carbon dioxide (CO2) and hydrogen generated from electricity to produce natural oils that can be upgraded to hydrocarbon fuels. MIT has designed a 2-stage biofuel production system. In the first stage, hydrogen and CO2 are fed to a microorganism capable of converting these feedstocks to a 2-carbon compound called acetate. In the second stage, acetate is delivered to a different microorganism that can use the acetate to grow and produce oil. The oil can be removed from the reactor tank and chemically converted to various hydrocarbons. The electricity for the process could be supplied from novel means currently in development, or more proven methods such as the combustion of municipal waste, which would also generate the required CO2 and enhance the overall efficiency of MIT's biofuel-production system.

Massachusetts Institute of Technology

Bio-GTL: Direct and Indirect Paths of Methane Activation and Conversion to Biofuels

The Bioinformatics and Metabolic Engineering Lab at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) led by Prof. Greg Stephanopoulos will develop a comprehensive process to directly convert methane into a usable transportation fuel in a single step. MIT's unique technologies integrate methane activation with fuel synthesis, two distinct processes required to convert methane that are typically performed separately. Today, activating methane prior to converting it to useful fuel is a high-temperature, energy-intensive process. MIT's unique approach would use nitrate instead of oxygen to oxidize the methane, which could increase the energy efficiency of methane activation and ultimately convert it to fuel. Further, MIT will investigate the use of zeolite catalysts that have the potential to activate methane and convert it to methanol at very high efficiencies.

Medical University of South Carolina

Electroalcoholgenesis: Bioelectrochemical Reduction of CO2 to Butanol

Medical University of South Carolina (MUSC) is developing an engineered system to create liquid fuels from communities of interdependent microorganisms. MUSC is first pumping carbon dioxide (CO2) and renewable sources of electricity into a battery-like cell. A community of microorganisms uses the electricity to convert the CO2 into hydrogen. That hydrogen is then consumed by another community of microorganisms living in the same system. These new microorganisms convert the hydrogen into acetate, which in turn feed yet another community of microorganisms. This last community of microorganisms uses the acetate to produce a liquid biofuel called butanol. Similar interdependent microbial communities can be found in some natural environments, but they've never been coupled together in an engineered cell to produce liquid fuels. MUSC is working to triple the amount of butanol that can be produced in its system and to reduce the overall cost of the process.

MOgene Green Chemicals, LLC

Biotransformation of Methane into N-Butanol by a Methanotrophic Cyanobacterium

MOgene Green Chemicals will engineer a photosynthetic organism for methane conversion that can use energy from both methane and sunlight. The first step in aerobic biological activation of methane requires oxygen and the introduction of energy in the form of heat. Organisms that use methane typically do so through a process that creates carbon dioxide, a greenhouse gas, losing energy-rich carbon molecules in the process. To address this, MOgene will engineer a "phototrophic" organism to convert methane that is capable of deriving additional energy from sunlight. This will allow the organism to naturally provide oxygen needed for methane conversion while recapturing any carbon dioxide that would have been released in the process. Consequently, MOgene's technology would be a more efficient and cost-effective way to activate methane, while producing n-butanol, a liquid fuel precursor.

Molecule Works Inc.

Novel Electrochemical Membrane Reactor for Synthesis of Ammonia from Air and Water at Low Temperature and Low Pressure

Molecule Works will develop an electrochemical membrane reactor to produce ammonia from air, water, and renewable electricity. The team proposes a solid-state, thin-film alkaline electrochemical cell that has the potential to enhance ammonia synthesis productivity and energy efficiency, while lowering the cell material and fabrication costs. Current systems for ammonia production all have several challenges. Some use acidic membranes that can react with ammonia, resulting in lower conductivity and reduced membrane life. Others that operate at low temperatures (<100°C) may have low rates of reactions, while those that operate at high temperatures (>500°C) have long-heating processes that make them less practical for intermittent operation using renewable energy. Alkaline electrolytes have a number of advantages over traditional cells. Notably, alkaline electrolytes allow a larger area of the catalyst for nitrogen activation, increasing the rate of ammonia production. The team's system operates at a much lower temperature and pressure than the traditional ammonia production process. The modular nature of the system will also allow it to be deployed near the point of use.

North Carolina State University

Jet Fuel From Camelina Sativa: A Systems Approach

North Carolina State University (NC State) will genetically modify the oil-crop plant Camelina sativa to produce high quantities of both modified oils and terpenes. These components are optimized for thermocatalytic conversion into energy-dense drop-in transportation fuels. The genetically engineered Camelina will capture more carbon than current varieties and have higher oil yields. The Camelina will be more tolerant to drought and heat, which makes it suitable for farming in warmer and drier climate zones in the US. The increased productivity of NC State's enhanced Camelina and the development of energy-effective harvesting, extraction, and conversion technology could provide an alternative non-petrochemical source of fuel.

North Carolina State University

H2-Dependent Conversion of CO2 to Liquid Electrofuels by Extremely Thermophilic Archaea

North Carolina State University (NC State) is working with the University of Georgia to create electrofuels from primitive organisms called extremophiles that evolved before photosynthetic organisms and live in extreme, hot water environments with temperatures ranging from 167-212 degrees Fahrenheit. The team is genetically engineering these microorganisms so they can use hydrogen to turn carbon dioxide directly into alcohol-based fuels. High temperatures are required to distill the biofuels from the water where the organisms live, but the heat-tolerant organisms will continue to thrive even as the biofuels are being distilled--making the fuel-production process more efficient. The microorganisms don't require light, so they can be grown anywhere--inside a dark reactor or even in an underground facility.

Northwestern University

Engineering Multicopper Oxidases for Methane C-H Activation

Northwestern University and partners will leverage computational protein design to engineer and repurpose a natural catalyst to convert methane gas to liquid fuel. Current industrial processes to convert methane to liquid fuels are costly, or inefficient and wasteful. To address this, Northwestern University will alter natural catalysts to create versatile new protein catalysts that convert methane to methanol which can more easily integrate into fuel production pathways. Northwestern will also engineer an additional protein catalysts to couple, or join, two molecules of methane together, a process critical towards producing longer chain "hydrocarbons" similar to those found in gasoline. Northwestern University's simplified catalysts will provide a better alternative to existing methane converting enzymes and can be incorporated into multiple types of processes.

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