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Transportation Fuels

University of California - Irvine

MacroAlgae Cultivation Modeling System (MACMODS)

The University of California, Irvine (UC Irvine) will lead a MARINER Category 3 team to develop a flexible macroalgae cultivation modeling system that integrates an open-source regional ocean model with a fine-scale hydrodynamic model capable of simulating forces and nutrient flows in various farming systems. Macroalgae farming systems will require significant capital. Investment and management decisions can be guided by the development of advanced modeling tools to help better understand the nature of macroalgae production within the context of specific ocean regions. The UC Irvine team expects to provide an improved set of tools for locating optimal macroalgae farm sites, evaluating farm designs for structural soundness under rough ocean conditions, assessing new macroalgae cultivation techniques and operational procedures to maximize productivity. Their model will be capable of resolving turbulent fluxes within a canopy and hydrodynamic stresses on structures at sub-meter resolution. It will also feature a macroalgae growth model that accounts for biological processes such as the enhancement of nutrient uptake due to the motion of the plant canopy and waves. Once completed, the modeling tool will be able to assess optimal sites for macroalgae farms on the U.S. West coast, while guiding operational decisions to maximize yield. The tool will also evaluate the productivity and structural performance of a range of macroalgae farm designs and cultivation techniques, and predict the impact on coastal ecosystems.

University of California, Davis

Synthetic Biology, Protein Engineering, and Semi-Biological Photocatalysis to Convert Methane to N-Butanol

The University of California, Davis (UC Davis) will engineer new biological pathways for bacteria to convert ethylene to a liquid fuel. Currently, ethylene is readily available and used by the chemicals and plastics industries to produce a wide range of useful products, but it cannot be cost-effectively converted to a liquid fuel like butanol, an alcohol that can be used directly as part of a fuel blend. UC Davis is addressing this problem with synthetic biology and protein engineering. The team will engineer ethylene assimilation pathways into a host organism and use that organism to convert ethylene into n-butanol, an important platform chemical with broad applications in many chemical and fuel markets. This technology could provide a transformative route from methane to liquid biofuels that is more efficient than ones found in nature.

University of California, Los Angeles

Energy Plant Design

The University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA) is redesigning the carbon fixation pathways of plants to make them more efficient at capturing the energy in sunlight. Carbon fixation is the key process that plants use to convert carbon dioxide (CO2) from the atmosphere into higher energy molecules (such as sugars) using energy from the sun. UCLA is addressing the inefficiency of the process through an alternative biochemical pathway that uses 50% less energy than the pathway used by all land plants. In addition, instead of producing sugars, UCLA's designer pathway will produce pyruvate, the precursor of choice for a wide variety of liquid fuels. Theoretically, the new biochemical pathway will allow a plant to capture 200% as much CO2 using the same amount of light. The pathways will first be tested on model photosynthetic organisms and later incorporated into other plants, thus dramatically improving the productivity of both food and fuel crops.

University of California, Los Angeles

Electro-Autotrophic Synthesis of Higher Alcohols

The University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA) is utilizing renewable electricity to power direct liquid fuel production in genetically engineered Ralstonia eutropha bacteria. UCLA is using renewable electricity to convert carbon dioxide into formic acid, a liquid soluble compound that delivers both carbon and energy to the bacteria. The bacteria are genetically engineered to convert the formic acid into liquid fuel--in this case alcohols such as butanol. The electricity required for the process can be generated from sunlight, wind, or other renewable energy sources. In fact, UCLA's electricity-to-fuel system could be a more efficient way to utilize these renewable energy sources considering the energy density of liquid fuel is much higher than the energy density of other renewable energy storage options, such as batteries.

University of California, Los Angeles

High Efficiency Methanol Condensation Cycle (MC2)

The University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA) will develop a high-efficiency, synthetic metabolic pathway that transforms methanol into n-butanol, a liquid fuel that can be used as a direct substitute for gasoline due to its high energy density. In nature, the process by which organisms that feed on methane convert it into fuel is inefficient, resulting in a substantial loss of carbon in the process. UCLA's synthetic metabolic pathway would oxidize the methanol into formaldehyde, convert the formaldehyde into an essential metabolite known as acetyl-CoA, and then condense the acetyl-CoA into n-butanol. In the end, UCLA's pathway would transform 4 parts methanol into 3 parts water and 1 part n-butanol while achieving 100% carbon conversion. UCLA will also attempt to move this synthetic metabolic pathway into organisms capable of biological methane activation to create a complete methane to n-butanol microbial production system.

University of California, Santa Barbara

Scalable Aquaculture Monitoring System (SAMS)

The University of California, Santa Barbara (UCSB) will lead a MARINER Category 4 project to develop a system-level solution to continuously monitor all stages of seaweed biomass production. To maximize biomass yields and minimize risk, farm managers must be able to monitor farm progress starting at seaweed outplanting and continuing through the growth cycle to harvest. UCSB will develop a Scalable Aquaculture Monitoring System (SAMS) comprised of autonomous and semi-autonomous technologies capable of monitoring biomass productivity and physiological status, as well as the environmental conditions that control its near-term production. UCSB will also develop new software tools to integrate data into real-time, actionable intelligence. SAMS will deliver subsurface biomass imaging and quantification at an individual plant-scale, while maintaining the scalability to monitor multiple giant kelp farms simultaneously. If successful, the integration of canopy and subsurface kelp biomass, productivity, and condition information with environmental data will provide farm managers with a suite of farm data products to monitor farm status from outplant to harvest.

University of Colorado, Boulder

Low Cost Microtubular ALD-based Reactor System for Catalytic Reforming

The University of Colorado, Boulder (CU-Boulder) is using nanotechnology to improve the structure of natural gas-to-liquids catalysts. The greatest difficulty in industrial-scale catalyst activity is temperature control, which can only be solved by improving reactor design. CU-Boulder's newly structured catalyst creates a small-scale reactor for converting natural gas to liquid fuels that can operate at moderate temperatures. Additionally, CU-Boulder's small-scale reactors could be located near remote, isolated sources of natural gas, further enabling their use as domestic fuel sources.

University of Delaware

Direct Ammonia Fuel Cells for Transport Applications

The University of Delaware (UD) will develop a direct ammonia fuel cell operating near 100°C that will efficiently convert ammonia to electricity for electric vehicles and other applications. The team will develop new materials, including low-cost, high-performance hydroxide exchange membranes (HEMs) that can maintain stability near 100°C and novel ammonia oxidation catalysts. Proton exchange membranes are traditionally used in fuel cell applications, but HEMs have a number of advantages when ammonia is used as the direct fuel source including reduced side-reactions, prevention of ammonia crossover, and enabling of the use of lower cost catalysts. Finally, the team will target new developments in the full membrane electrode assembly structure and metal hardware fuel cell stack design, optimizing the system's operating conditions for effective water management and minimized fuel crossover. The goal is an ammonia-fed, cost-competitive fuel cell generating high power density, with rapid start-up enabled by the low operating temperature.

University of Delaware

Synthetic Methylotrophy to Liquid Fuel

The University of Delaware (UD) is engineering new metabolic pathways to convert methane into liquid fuel. UD's technology targets high-efficiency activation of methane to methanol without the consumption of additional energy, followed by conversion to butanol. The two-stage technology is envisioned to recapture carbon dioxide --with no carbon dioxide emissions. The team will use metabolic engineering and synthetic biology techniques to enable methanol utilization in organisms that are not natively about to do so. This modification will allow the new organism to grow on methanol, and utilize the available energy to produce butanol. Butanol is a high-energy fuel, with chemical and physical properties that are compatible with the current gasoline-based technologies for transportation.

University of Florida

Rays for Roots - Integrating Backscatter X-Ray Phenotyping, Modelling, and Genetics to Increase Carbon Sequestration

The University of Florida will develop a backscatter X-ray platform to non-destructively image roots in field conditions. The team will focus their efforts on switchgrass, a promising biofuel feedstock with deep and extensive root systems. Switchgrass is also a good candidate to study because it is a perennial grass with great genetic diversity that is broadly adapted to the full range of environments found in the U.S. The project will leverage a DOE-funded switchgrass common garden with ten identical plantings that span growth zones from Texas to South Dakota. X-ray backscatter systems use a targeted beam to illuminate the part of the plant under observation, and sensors detect the x-rays reflected back to construct an image. The system will not require trenches or other modifications to the field, and will be able to provide three-dimensional root and soil imaging. Software developed by the team will help refine the raw data collected. Image processing and machine learning algorithms will improve image formation and autonomously analyze and extract key root and soil characteristics. In particular, root-vs-soil segmentation algorithms will be developed to identify roots in the imagery and extract geometric-based features such as root length and root diameter. Statistical machine learning algorithms will also be developed and trained to extract information from the imagery beyond the geometric-based features traditionally identified. The project aims to identify the genetic and environmental factors associated with desirable root characteristic that can lead to increased carbon flow and deposition into the soil. If the team is successful, these tools will be broadly applicable to other crops and application areas beyond switchgrass.

University of Florida

Commercial Production of Terpene Biofuels in Pine

The University of Florida is working to increase the amount of turpentine in harvested pine from 4% to 20% of its dry weight. While enhanced feedstocks for biofuels have generally focused on fuel production from leafy plants and grasses, the University of Florida is experimenting with enhancing fuel production in a species of pine that is currently used in the paper pulping industry. Pine trees naturally produce around 3-5% terpene content in the wood--terpenes are the energy-dense fuel molecules that are the predominant components of turpentine. The team aims to increase the terpene storage potential and production capacity while improving the terpene composition to a point at which the trees could be tapped while alive, like sugar maples. Growth and production from these trees will take years, but this pioneering technology could have significant impact in making available an economical and domestic source of aviation and diesel biofuels.

University of Illinois, Urbana Champaign

Novel Technologies to Solve the Water use Problem of High Yielding C4 Bioenergy and Bioproduct Feedstocks

The University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign (UIUC) team proposes to increase the water-use efficiency in sorghum production, enabling plants to produce the same yield with 40% less water. By analyzing mathematical models of crop physiology and biophysics, the UIUC team has identified multiple strategies to improve water-use efficiency. In one instance, the team will decrease water loss within plants by shifting photosynthetic activity from leaves at the top of crop canopy where it is drier to lower leaves that operate in higher humidity. To increase photosynthesis in lower leaves, the upper canopy leaves will need to be a lighter shade of green and more vertical to allow more light to penetrate the canopy. Additionally, the team will alter the density and activity of the pores, called stomata, on the leaves that regulate CO2 uptake and water loss for the plant. UIUC will utilize both biotechnology and advanced molecular breeding techniques to implement these strategies. These water-efficient sorghum technologies will open up more than 9.5 million acres of lower quality land in the Midwest for sorghum production without relying on irrigation. Additionally, it will increase yields across current arable, rain-fed land. These techniques could be applied to other agricultural crops, such as corn, sugarcane and Miscanthus. The development of this water-use efficiency biotechnology will advance the efficiency of biomass production, reducing dependence on foreign oil imports and decreasing CO2 emissions.

University of Illinois, Urbana Champaign

Engineering Hydrocarbon Biosynthesis and Storage Together with Increased Photosynthetic Efficiency into the Saccharinae

The University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign (UIUC) is working to convert sugarcane and sorghum--already 2 of the most productive crops in the world--into dedicated bio-oil crop systems. Three components will be engineered to produce new crops that have a 50% higher yield, produce easily extractable oils, and have a wider growing range across the U.S. This will be achieved by modifying the crop canopy to better distribute sunlight and increase its cold tolerance. By directly producing oil in the shoots of these plants, these biofuels could be easily extracted with the conventional crushing techniques used today to extract sugar.

University of Illinois, Urbana Champaign

TERRA MEPP (Mobile Energy-crop Phenotyping Platform)

The University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign (UIUC) with partners, Cornell University and Signetron Inc., will develop a small semi-autonomous, ground-based vehicle called TERRA-MEPP (Mobile Energy-Crop Phenotyping Platform). The platform performs high-throughput field-based data collection for bioenergy crops, providing on-the-go measurements of the physical structure of individual plants. TERRA-MEPP will use visual, thermal, and multi-spectral sensors to collect data and create 3-D reconstructions of individual plants. Newly developed software will interpret the data and a model-based data synthesis system will enable breeders to select the most promising sorghum lines for bioenergy production much sooner than currently possible, dramatically increasing the rate of genetic advancements in biomass.

University of Massachusetts, Amherst

Electrofuels Via Direct Electron Transfer from Electrodes to Microbes

The University of Massachusetts at Amherst (UMass Amherst) is feeding renewable electricity to bacteria to provide the microorganisms with the energy they need to turn carbon dioxide (CO2) directly into liquid fuels. UMass Amherst's energy-to-fuels conversion process is anticipated to be more efficient than current biofuels approaches in part because this process will leverage the high efficiency of photovoltaics to convert solar energy into electricity. UMass Amherst is using bacteria already known to produce biofuel from electric current and CO2 and working to increase the amount of electric current those microorganisms will accept and use for biofuels production. In collaboration with scientists at University of California, San Diego, the UMass Amherst team is also investigating the use of hydrogen sulfide as a source of energy to power biofuel production.

University of Massachusetts, Amherst

Development of a Dedicated, High-Value Biofuels Crop

The University of Massachusetts at Amherst (UMass Amherst) is developing an enhanced, biofuels-producing variant of Camelina, a drought-resistant, cold-tolerant oilseed crop that can be grown in many places other plants cannot. The team is working to incorporate several genetic traits into Camelina that increases its natural ability to produce oils and add the production of energy-dense terpene molecules that can be easily converted into liquid fuels. UMass Amherst is also experimenting with translating a component common in algae to Camelina that should allow the plants to absorb higher levels of carbon dioxide (CO2), which aids in enhancing photosynthesis and fuel conversion. The process will first be demonstrated in tobacco before being applied in Camelina.

University of Michigan

Anaerobic Bioconversion of Methane to Methanol

The University of Michigan team will develop a biological approach to activate methane, the first step in creating a liquid fuel from natural gas. Current approaches to methane activation require the addition of oxygen and energy in the form of heat, which is inefficient and costly. The University of Michigan's multidisciplinary team will engineer a methane-generating microorganism that can activate methane without the need for these additional inputs. The University of Michigan will use computer models to understand the processes on a molecular level and predict the structure of new enzymes and chemical interactions. Once modeled and engineered, the University of Michigan's optimized organism and process would provide a way to produce butanol, a drop-in liquid fuel.

University of Minnesota

Shewanella as an Ideal Platform for Producing Hydrocarbons

The University of Minnesota (UMN) is developing clean-burning, liquid hydrocarbon fuels from bacteria. UMN is finding ways to continuously harvest hydrocarbons from a type of bacteria called Shewanella by using a photosynthetic organism to constantly feed Shewanella the sugar it needs for energy and hydrocarbon production. The two organisms live and work together as a system. Using Shewanella to produce hydrocarbon fuels offers several advantages over traditional biofuel production methods. First, it eliminates many of the time-consuming and costly steps involved in growing plants and harvesting biomass. Second, hydrocarbon biofuels resemble current petroleum-based fuels and would therefore require few changes to the existing fuel refining and distribution infrastructure in the U.S.

University of Minnesota

Small Scale Ammonia Synthesis Using Stranded Wind Energy

The University of Minnesota (UMN) will develop a small-scale ammonia synthesis system using water and air, powered by wind energy. Instead of developing a new catalyst, this team is looking to increase process efficiency by absorbing ammonia at modest pressures as soon as it is formed. The reactor partially converts a feed of nitrogen and hydrogen into ammonia, after which the gases leaving the reactor go into a separator, where the ammonia is removed and the unreacted hydrogen and nitrogen are recycled. The ammonia is removed completely by selective absorption, which allows the synthesis to operate at lower pressure. This reduced pressure makes the system suitable for small-scale applications and more compatible with intermittent energy sources. The success of preliminary experiments suggests that this new approach may be fruitful in reducing capital and operating costs of ammonia production.

University of New England

Validated, Finite Element Modeling Tool for Hydrodynamic Loading and Structural Analysis of Ocean-Deployed Macroalgae Farms

The University of New England (UNE) will lead a MARINER Category 3 project to develop a high-resolution, 3D computational modeling tool for simulating hydrodynamic forces on macroalgae cultivation and harvest systems. Advanced modeling tools can help inform decisions about farm structure and the significant capital investment required. UNE's modeling tool will quantify fluid dynamics and mechanical stress at the sub-meter level. The tool will have the capability to evaluate a wide range of offshore macroalgae systems and allow specification of components to withstand storm events, prevent over-engineering, and optimize capital costs. On-shore tank testing and validation at a location in the Gulf of Maine will be used to obtain data necessary to validate the tool's accuracy. The field samples will help quantify the growth as a function of environmental conditions throughout the macroalgae-growing season in the Gulf of Maine. If successful, the completed tool will accelerate the engineering, testing, permitting, and operation of new macroalgae systems.

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