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.

Scientists Develop Higher-Performance Fuels, Biofuels and Bioproducts

-By Irina Silva

Researchers at Berkeley Lab’s Joint BioEnergy Institute (JBEI) and the Advanced Biofuels & Bioproducts Process Development Unit (ABPDU) have developed a new polyketide synthase-based platform and prototyped efficient production of potential biofuels, gasoline additives, and commodity chemicals.

Microbial production of biofuels and bioproducts is typically carried out using natural or slightly modified enzymes within the metabolic pathway, which can inherently limit the types of molecules that can be produced. Type I modular polyketide synthases (PKSs) are multi-domain enzymes that resemble a modular metabolic assembly line that naturally produces a wide range of unique and diverse molecular structures by combining particular types of catalytic domains in a Lego®-like fashion. This versatile biocatalytic mechanism intrinsically offers a wealth of bioengineering opportunities that scientists can exploit to improve both the rate and yield of the biofuels and bioproducts generated by PKSs.

In “Short-chain ketone production by engineered polyketide synthases in Streptomyces albus published recently in Nature Communications, co-authors Satoshi Yuzawa (JBEI) and Mona Mirsiaghi (ABPDU), present the results of an engineered modular PKS system in the native host Streptomyces venezualae. JBEI and ABPDU researchers were able to demonstrate production of over 1 g/L of C6 and C7 ketones from plant biomass-, a 200-fold improvement over previous efforts.

Final titers of C6 and C7 ethyl ketones with strain ALB188 (left) and C5 and C6 methyl ketones with strain ALB191 (right), in media MM042 with amino acid supplements. Manipulation of cultivation conditions allows tunable production of shorter or longer chain molecules.

Engine tests, performed in the scope of the Co-Optimization of Fuels & Engines (Co-Optima) project, indicate these short-chain ketones can be added to gasoline to increase its octane. This flexible platform could enable biosynthesis of an array of previously inaccessible molecules, allowing fine-tuning of fuel properties, production of highly branched diesel-range biofuels, and a broad range of commodity chemicals.

Other co-authors on the paper are: Renee Jocic, Tatsuya Fujii, Veronica T. Benites, Edward E. K. Baidoo, Anthe George, John M. Gladden, Blake A. Simmons, Leonard Katz and Jay D. Keasling of JBEI, Fabrice Masson, Eric Sundstrom, Deepti Tanjore, and Todd R. Pray of the ABPDU, and Ryan W. Davis of Sandia National Laboratories.

This work was funded by the Joint BioEnergy Institute, a DOE Bioenergy Research Center funded by DOE’s Office of Science, and the Co-Optimization of Fuels & Engines (Co-Optima) project sponsored by the U.S. DOE Office of Energy Efficiency and Renewable Energy’s Bioenergy Technologies Office (BETO). This work was also funded by the National Science Foundation, and leveraged the ABPDU facility which is maintained by BETO and was initiated with funding from the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act.

JBEI Participates at Bay Area Science Festival’s Discovery Day at AT&T Park

JBEI’s volunteers participated at the Bay Area Science Festival’s Discovery Day at AT&T Park this past Saturday, Nov. 3 in collaboration with Berkeley Lab. The event was the culmination of a series of science events for young scientists in the Bay Area.

Our volunteers interacted with about 500 people guiding them through the bioenergy pipeline, and teaching them about concepts such as plant engineering and the use of microbial hosts for the production of biofuels and bioproducts.

Many thanks to our volunteers for their outreach efforts: Irina Silva, Kavitha Satish Kumar, Kevin Lin, Kosuke Iwai, Nurgul Kaplan, Peter Otoupal and Tina Wang.

For more photos, check out this link.

JBEI Organizes Third Annual Software Developer WetLab Bootcamp

-By Irina Silva

The Biosciences Area’s software developers were invited to participate at the third annual Software Developer Wetlab Bootcamp at the Joint BioEnegy Institute (JBEI). Ten participants from Agile BioFoundry, DOE Joint Genome Institute (JGI), JBEI and KBase participated at the training which took place from October 29 to November 2.

Software developers at Berkeley Lab often develop software infrastructure that support, automate, or enhance laboratory operations. “The more hands-on experience the software engineers have with these laboratory operations, the better they can understand them and develop software for them”, said Nathan Hillson, JBEI’s Director of Synthetic Biology Informatics and the organizer of the training. “The WetLab Bootcamp provides just such an opportunity for software engineers to get this hands-on experience, and actually perform the operations that they are supporting.”

Additionally the WetLab Bootcamp is beneficial as it brings together software developers from across the Biosciences Area’s different facilities that may be working in related domains but rarely, if ever, have the opportunity to meet and deepen their professional relationships in person. “The WetLab Bootcamp can be considered a very special job perk that other Bay Area software companies do not offer to their staff. For Berkeley Lab, providing this kind of work experiences helps with staff recruitment and retention.”

Nurgul Kaplan, one of the WetLab Bootcamp instructors, explains how 384 uniquely indexed samples can be pooled and sequenced together in a single lane on an Illumina sequencer.

WetLab Bootcamp instructors Nurgul Kaplan and Tadeusz Ogorzalek from JBEI’s Synthetic Biology Informatics Group, provided training on how to understand the basics of, as well as perform, a Nextera/MiSeq NGS DNA sequence validation workflow, how to use the Echo acoustic and Biomek liquid handling robotics, how machine learning can help optimize wetlab operations, and finally how MiSeq Data are analyzed, and IGV can be used to visualize results.

For KBase’s Dylan Chivian, one of the trainees, the Bootcamp was very helpful, “The WetLab Bootcamp was really useful for me to get a better sense of the power and limitations of multiplexed sequencing with robotics. All my work is downstream of sequencing, and knowing what goes into the data generation will help me build better tools for analysis of that data. Also, it was fun! Nurgul and Tad were great teachers.”

JGI’s Lisa Simirenko learns to denature and dilute prepared libraries for sequencing on the Illumina MiSeq system.

Lisa Simirenko who also undertook the training and works at JGI’s DNA Synthesis group added, “The people on our team that work in the lab routinely validate the sequences of the constructs that they synthesize. Understanding the wet lab sequencing process, and how the operator interacts with different hardware and software tools will help me design better software to help enable this process”. Simirenko finished the training “with a much deeper understanding of the sequencing process, and the interpretation of the resulting data.”