Building a better biofuel: interdisciplinary Energy Institute project leads to National Science Foundation grant win

Wednesday, July 31, 2013

Nina Lin and Neil Marsh met at an Energy Institute-hosted symposium three years ago. Both were interested in biofuels, but their research backgrounds are substantially different: Nina Lin is an assistant professor of Chemical Engineering, and Marsh is a professor in the Chemistry Department and of Biological Chemistry at the Medical School.

Together, the two decided to apply for a PISET (Partnerships for Innovation in Sustainable Energy Technology) grant through the Institute; PISET recipients are awarded around $40,000 toward an exploratory, interdisciplinary project. Lin and Marsh aimed to explore ways to engineer microorganisms capable of synthesizing biochemical molecules that could be used as burnable fuel. That small grant has since blossomed into a three-year, $423,000 National Science Foundation (NSF) award for the two Energy Institute faculty affiliates.

“The project itself involves trying to find ways to make better, more efficient biofuels, in particular biofuels that you could directly substitute into current conventional fuel technology. We’d like someone to pull up to a gas station and not be able to tell the difference between whether it was a biofuel or a fossil fuel,” says Marsh.

Marsh and Lin are trying to engineer microorganisms- bacteria or photosynthetic organisms like algae- to produce the molecules that make up gasoline. Think of Marsh as the explorer- finding promising enzymes and figuring out how they work, and Lin as a builder, putting enzymes into cells and getting them to do the right thing.

Research approaches like these could provide a workable alternative to ethanol, the current de facto biofuel. While ethanol can be sold right at the pump, it has a lower energy density than gasoline, meaning that for each mile you want to drive, you must purchase about 25% more ethanol than you would with conventional gasoline. Furthermore, ethanol’s ability to mix with water makes it difficult to fit into current transportation infrastructures (e. g. pipelines, engines).

Marsh and Lin are building a better alternative from scratch. First, they must find the right building blocks. “What we do in this project is the very basic research to see if it’s even possible to make an organism produce these molecules directly. That requires finding the right enzymes, and being able to put those enzymes together inside of an organism and have them work correctly to actually make what you hope you’re going to make and not something different,” says Marsh. It’s an intense, trial-and-error-based process being explored in different ways across the country.

Says Lin, “It’s good that so many people are working on biofuels. Energy is such a big issue that we’re facing, for our whole society. It’s a very challenging problem and it won’t be solved quickly. Many people must work on it, and many ideas must be tried out. What we are exploring in this project provides some new avenues for biofuel research using combined, fundamental approaches.”

As Marsh and Lin began their collaboration, their first challenge was simply understanding the language used in two different disciplines. “It’s been an interesting experience – the good thing is that you get so much access to expertise in a different field, and we adapt to the language of another discipline. I’ve really enjoyed it,” says Lin. The NSF responded well to the collaboration as well, Lin notes: “People were pretty happy to see a biochemist and an engineer come together on this.”

“One of the nice things about it, for me,” adds Marsh, “has been the chance to talk with more chemical engineers. Engineers have a very different idea of what the real problem is. As a chemist, you might really think you need to solve one problem, but an engineer will say that’s not the major stopping block here, it’s coming from somewhere else. On the other hand, engineers might not be aware of advances in chemistry to the same extent, and they’ll say ‘we can’t do this because we don’t have this molecule’ and a chemist will say, ‘Well, that’s pretty easy to turn this one into this other one using this reaction.’ In that way it’s been a really useful cross-fertilization.”

Both Lin and Marsh credit Fengming Lin (no relation to Nina Lin), the postdoctoral Energy Fellow they hired to work as the project’s research lead, with absorbing lessons from both sides of the research fence. Originally an exchange student in Nina Lin’s lab, Fengming Lin has spent time in both labs and meets regularly with both investigators, learning what Marsh calls “an impressive amount of enzymology” on the chemistry side.

The three make a strong team, a team they’ll expand with the receipt of their NSF grant funds.  “With this award, now we can really expand the scope of the work. We can now look at even more things and also try to speed up the research we want to see,” says Nina Lin.

Photo: Fengming Lin, the postdoc conducting the research on Nina Lin and Marsh’s joint project, works in the lab.

About PISET
PISET awards, distributed periodically by the Energy Institute, aim to bring together interdisciplinary research teams to attack problems in four areas: carbon-free electric power generation, energy storage and efficiency, transportation systems and fuels, and energy policy, economics, and societal impact.

About the University of Michigan Energy Institute
The demand for economically and environmentally sound energy solutions is urgent and global. At the Energy Institute, we build on the University of Michigan’s strong energy research heritage at the heart of the nation’s automotive and manufacturing industries to develop and integrate science, technology and policy solutions to pressing energy challenges.

More info/ contact
Visit the Marsh Lab web page here and the Lin lab web page here.

Student conducting research in collaboration with the University of Michigan Energy Institute.