2019 Undergraduate Poster Presentation

Undergraduates who have interned at Emery Station East (ESE), where JBEI is located, participated at an on-site poster presentation and celebration on May 10. The students who interned at JBEI and other research programs hosted at ESE presented results of their research. Twelve posters and two talks were presented to the JBEI community.

The undergraduates were judged for their presentation and poster making skills. This year, there was a tie in both categories. Julie Lake and Allison Pearson won for “Best Poster Design” and Kenneth Workman and Isabel Honda won for “Best Poster Presentation”.

The following students presented seminar talks:

  • Marian-Joy Baluyot (Mentor: Sam Curran)
  • Will Sharpless (Mentor: Mitch Thompson)

And the students below presented posters:

  • Alex Cardia (Mentor: Luis Valencia)
  • Allison Pearson (Mentor: Mitch Thompson)
  • Amanda Hernandez, Samantha Chang (Mentor: Amin Zargar)
  • Isabel Honda (Mentor: Laure Leynaud-Kieffer)
  • Jasmine Cisneros, Jennifer Zhang (Mentor: Paul Opgenorth)
  • Julie Lake (Mentor: Sam Curran)
  • Kenneth Workman (Mentor: Henrique De Paoli)
  • Marty Ng (Mentor: Ankita Kothari)
  • Maya Ramamurthy (Mentors: Connie Bailey, Luis Valencia)
  • Shania Tedja (Mentor: Deepika Awasthi)
  • Silver Alkhafaji (Mentor: Laure Leynaud-Kieffer)
  • Suneil Acharya (Mentor: Pablo Cruz-Morales)
Allison Pearson, one of the “Best Poster Design” winners seen here presenting her poster.
Kenneth Workman (on the right), one of the “Best Poster Presentation” winners, with his mentor Henrique De Paoli.

Making fuel out of algae could clean up dirty planes

Corinne Scown, JBEI’s VP of Life-cycle, Economics and Agronomy, recently spoke to Wired UK about how biofuels have the potential to play an important role in the reduction of greenhouse gas emissions in aviation.

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Pam Ronald Elected to National Academy of Sciences

Pam Ronald, scientific lead of plant pathology at the Joint BioEnergy Institute (JBEI), was elected to the National Academy of Sciences in recognition of her distinguished and continuing achievements in original research. She joins 100 scientists and engineers from the U.S. and 25 from across the world as new lifelong members and foreign associates.

All new NAS members and foreign associates are nominated by existing NAS members for outstanding contributions to their field. Only 100 or fewer researchers make it through the selection process each year. The four new members bring the number of Berkeley Lab scientists elected as NAS members to 84.

On top of being one of the highest honors a scientist or engineer can receive, membership to NAS also provides a platform for advocacy and leadership. Since its creation in 1863, NAS has served as a nonpartisan, nonprofit institution that offers science, engineering, and health policy advice to the federal government and other organizations.

Pam Ronald is also a distinguished professor in the College of Agricultural and Environmental Sciences at UC Davis. Ronald’s research focuses on plant genes that control resistance to disease and tolerance to environmental stressors, with the goal of using genetic engineering to improve food security for the world’s poorest farmers. Read more.

New Study Sees Competitive SAFJ Prices in Future, AIN Online

Aviation International News covered JBEI’s study “Techno-economic analysis and life-cycle greenhouse gas mitigation cost of five routes to bio-jet fuel blendstocks,” published in the journal Energy & Environmental Science which provided evidence that optimizing the biofuel production pipeline is well worth the effort.

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Bright Skies for Plant-Based Jet Fuels

Joint BioEnergy Institute researchers demonstrate that jet fuels made from plants could be cost competitive with conventional fossil fuels

With an estimated daily fuel demand of more than 5 million barrels per day, the global aviation sector is incredibly energy-intensive and almost entirely reliant on petroleum-based fuels. Unlike other energy sectors such as ground transportation or residential and commercial buildings, the aviation industry can’t easily shift to renewable energy sources using existing technologies.

However, a new analysis by scientists at the Department of Energy’s Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory (Berkeley Lab) shows that sustainable plant-based bio-jet fuels could provide a competitive alternative to conventional petroleum fuels if current development and scale-up initiatives continue to push ahead successfully.

“Techno-economic analysis and life-cycle greenhouse gas mitigation cost of five routes to bio-jet fuel blendstocks” published recently in the journal Energy & Environmental Science, provides promising evidence that optimizing the biofuel production pipeline – taking carbohydrate-rich plant material and using genetically modified bacteria to digest the isolated sugars into energy-dense molecules that are then chemically converted into a fuel product – is well worth the effort.

From left: Nawa Baral, Daniel Mendez-Perez Aindrila Mukhopadhyay, Blake Simmons, Corinne Scown and Taek Soon Lee.

“It’s challenging to electrify aviation using batteries or fuel cells in part because of the weight restrictions on aircraft, so liquid biofuels have the potential to play a big role in greenhouse gas emissions reductions,” said lead author Corinne Scown, a researcher in Berkeley Lab’s Energy Technologies Area as well as DOE’s Joint BioEnergy Institute (JBEI). “The team at JBEI has been working on biological routes to advanced bio-jet fuel blends that are not only derived from plant-based sugars but also have attractive properties that could actually provide an advantage over conventional jet fuels.”

How to get fuel from plant material

Currently, multidisciplinary teams based at JBEI are focused on optimizing each stage of the bio-jet fuel production process. Some researchers specialize in engineering ideal source plants – referred to as biomass – that create a high proportion of carbohydrates and a low proportion of lignin, a type of material that, as of now, is more challenging to make useful. Meanwhile, others are developing methods for efficiently isolating the carbohydrates in non-food biomass and breaking them into sugar molecules that bacteria can digest, or “bioconvert,” into a fuel molecule. To obtain the highest possible yield from bioconversion, yet other JBEI researchers are examining what genetic and environmental factors make the modified bacteria more efficient.

Once these stages are optimized, JBEI scientists can transition the technologies to commercial partners who may then modify and blend the fuels into ready-to-use products and devise strategies to industrialize the scale of production. Given the vast amount of experimentation and innovation needed to accomplish all this, Scown and her co-authors used innovative analysis methods to assess whether the undertaking could actually reach the end game of a jet fuel alternative that airlines will want to use.

“Our hope is that early in the research stages, we can at least simulate what we think it would look like if you develop these fuel production routes to the point of maturity,” Scown said. “If you were to push them to the ethanol benchmark – the technology to create ethanol from plant material like corn stalks, leaves, and cobs has been around a long time, and we can ferment sugars with a 90 percent efficiency – how close would this get us to the market price of petroleum fuels? That is important to know now.

“Thankfully, the answer is they can be viable. And we’ve identified improvements that need to happen all along the conversion process to make that happen.”

Imagining the production process at scale

From left: Co-authors Nawa Baral and Daniel Mendez-Perez

Due to the biomass deconstruction and fuel synthesis technologies developed at JBEI, the theoretical cost of bio-jet fuel has declined steadily in recent years and is currently as low as $16 per gallon, as compared to $300,000 per gallon when JBEI was established, according to co-author and JBEI postdoctoral fellow Nawa Baral. The cost of standard jet fuel is about $2.50 per gallon.

To explore how bio-jet fuel could bridge the remaining price gap, the research team used complex computer simulations that modeled the necessary technology and subsequent costs of complete, scaled-up production pathways at different efficiency levels and with a range of biomass and chemical inputs. The authors simulated a total of five different production pathways to four distinct fuel molecules.

The results showed that all five pathways could indeed create fuel products at the target price of $2.50 per gallon if manufacturers are able to convert the leftover lignin into a valuable chemical – something JBEI researchers are currently working toward – that could be sold to offset the cost of biofuels. The net price of a gallon of biofuel could be lowered further if airlines were offered even a modest financial credit for emissions reduction.

Following some industry research, the team also found that airlines may be willing to pay a premium of as much as fifty cents per gallon because all four biofuels deliver more energy per unit volume, meaning a plane could fly farther on a tank of the same size.

“The development of plant-based compounds that have a performance advantage over their petroleum-based counterparts is an important factor in determining their marketplace viability,” said Blake Simmons, a co-author and the Chief Science and Technology Officer at JBEI.

However, as promising as these findings are, getting the biofuel production technology to the gold-standard yields assumed in these simulations will require further advances.

“It’s clear that, to get these fuels to commercial viability, we need all hands on deck,” Scown noted. “But this analysis highlights the importance of multi-institutional, integrative research centers like JBEI because no group working on one phase of the process alone can make it happen.”

The other co-authors on the paper are JBEI scientists Olga Kavvada, Daniel Mendez-Perez, Aindrila Mukhopadhyay, and Taek Soon Lee.

Funded by the DOE’s Office of Science, JBEI was created with a mission to develop economically-viable, carbon-neutral biofuels and bioproducts that utilize the sunlight energy stored in biomass.

Sloan Fellowship Will Help Patrick Shih Investigate Ancient Origins of Photosynthesis

Patrick Shih, JBEI’s Director of Plant Biosystems Design who also serves as an Assistant Professor at the Department of Plant Biology at UC Davis, was recently selected as a 2019 Alfred P. Sloan Research Fellow in Computational and Evolutionary Molecular Biology.

Shih, will use this fellowship to help fund his research to reconstruct the evolution of photosynthesis, a process that originated billions of years ago.

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JBEI Participates in Conference on Growing the Circular Bioeconomy

Berkeley Lab recently joined the California Air Resources Board, UC Berkeley, and UC’s Division of Agriculture and Natural Resources in co-hosting the California Bioresources Economy Summit, aimed at harnessing biotechnology to convert California waste streams from farms, forests, and landfills into valuable low-carbon fuels and products.

Associate Laboratory Director for Biosciences Mary MaxonAssociate Laboratory Director for Biosciences Mary Maxon keynoted the 2-day conference as it kicked off January 29 at the David Brower Center in Berkeley. In her presentation, Maxon noted that expansion of the $370 billion per year U.S. bioeconomy could create more than 1 million jobs while reducing annual carbon emissions by up to 450 million tons.

Blake SimmonsJBEI Chief Science and Technology Officer Blake Simmons moderated a session entitled “Current and Future Technologies and Strategies,” which included JBEI Chief Executive Officer Jay Keasling. Representatives from Aemetis, the Department of Energy’s BioEnergy Technologies Office, and Lygos joined Keasling on the panel.

Corinne Scown and panelCorinne Scown, Vice President for Life-Cycle, Economics and Agronomy at the Joint BioEnergy Institute, led a session that provided an overview of bioresources available for conversion to biofuels and bioproducts. Scown invited representatives from CalFIRE, CalRecycle, Humboldt State University, and UC Berkeley to participate.

The conference’s presentations are available here.

The automatic-design tools that are changing synthetic biology, Nature

Nature covered the automatic-design tools that are changing synthetic biology, namely j5, a tool created by JBEI and licensed exclusively to TeselaGen Biotechnology.

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JBEI Holds Semi-annual Celebration of Undergraduate Research

JBEI recently held its “Semi-annual Celebration of Undergraduate Research” during which thirteen posters were presented and two seminar talks were given by undergraduate students.

Undergraduate students Jadie Moon won for “Best Poster Design” and Albert Tang won for “Best Verbal Presentation”. They were mentored by Maren Mehrs and Ankita Kothari respectively and both students are part of JBEI’s Host Engineering research group led by Aindrila Mukhopadhyay.

We thank graduate students Jacquelyn Blake-Hedges, Mitch Thompson and Luis Valencia for leading the organization of this event.