Accelerating biomass technologies to create energy and materials

By 2040, worldwide energy consumption is projected to increase 28% from 2015. Also, fossil fuels will still account for 77% of energy use, according to the International Energy Outlook Report 2017. Now is the time to foster innovation in the renewable energy supply chain to satisfy this ever-increasing demand.

Biomass is one renewable energy source that is both abundant and cost-effective, which can significantly help meet our energy demands. Biomass can be any organic material obtained from agricultural resources, agricultural residues, forest resources, waste – including municipal solid waste, industrial wastes and other wastes – as well as algae. Biomass used as sustainable fuels and energy products has been proposed to combat climate change, and it can help reduce our dependence on fossil fuels. Research led by scientists Reed Cartwright and Xuan Wang at Arizona State University aims to break through the innovation bottleneck for the renewable bioproduction of fuels and chemicals. “My lab has been very interested in converting biomass such as agricultural wastes and even carbon dioxide into useful and renewable bio-based products,” said Wang, an assistant professor in the School of Life Sciences. To do so, they harnessed the trial-and-error power of evolution to coax nature into revealing the answer. By growing bacteria over generations under specially controlled conditions in fermentation tanks, they have test-tube-evolved bacteria to better ferment sugars derived from biomass — a rich, potential renewable-energy source for the production of biofuels and chemicals. Their results appeared recently in the online edition of PNAS and Science Newsline. The U.S. Department of Energy has selected two of Arizona State University’s biofuel projects among six nationwide to explore innovative solutions in bioenergy. These projects will support the Bioenergy Technologies Office's work to develop renewable and cost-competitive biofuels from non-food biomass feedstock. ASU’s two projects include engineering cyanobacteria for the production of ethyl-laurate, which is easily converted to “drop-in” ready biofuels and bioproducts. The research project on algae develops mixotrophic algae that can consume both CO2 and cellulosic sugars and significantly improve algal biomass growth. Klaus Lackner, director of ASU’s Center for Negative Carbon Emissions, teamed up with ASU Biodesign Institute engineer Bruce Rittman to lead a new research project to aid U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) efforts to boost production of a promising source of clean, renewable energy. “Our goal is to develop systems to make growing microalgae more affordable and sustainable and to produce it on scales large enough to meet growing demands in the United States and globally,” Rittmann said. ASU’s Air Capture Technology collects dry carbon dioxide from the atmosphere and then releases it at an enriched concentration of CO2 when wet. The enriched CO2 can be put to several uses, like feeding algae that thrive on CO2. “Those algae can then be used to make biofuels,” Lackner said. “You could have fuels without any petroleum.” The team is currently building the first prototype of the system to begin evaluating its performance over several months outdoors – first growing algae in a rooftop 75-liter photobioreactor, and second, in 1500-liter raceway ponds out at the Arizona Center for Algae Technology and Innovation (AzCATI) national testbed at ASU’s Polytechnic Campus. “We are now poised to see how the technology fares outside of the laboratory, which is critical to identify areas we still need to improve to make the technology commercially viable,” Rittmann said. The production and use of biofuel/bioenergy products has a lesser environmental impact than that of petroleum counterparts. This has made countries set national biofuel targets and provide support and incentives to accelerate the transition towards a large-scale, sustainable production and use of biofuels and bioenergy products. For more information, please contact Samson Szeto, Communications Program Coordinator for ASU LightWorks®. Contributor: Vinodh Raj Subramanian