Energy and Climate

It is estimated that there is over 1 billion tons of non-food lignocellulosic biomass currently available on a sustainable basis in the United States alone for the production of biofuels.  Lignocellulosic biomass is therefore a critical feedstock for the production of renewable fuels that will be required to meet the biofuel production targets established by the Renewable Fuels Standard (RFS-2) as part of the Energy Independence and Security Act (EISA) of 2007. Unlike starch-based biofuels, such as corn ethanol, more energy is required to break down the complex lignocellulose into fermentable sugars, and this increased energy requirement results in higher costs of production. In order for lignocellulosic biofuels to become truly cost-competitive with fossil fuels, significant breakthroughs are required to lower these energy and cost requirements. Sandia is developing these advanced conversion technologies that will produce “drop-in” biofuels capable of displacing gasoline, diesel, and jet fuel with no loss of performance and/or engine efficiency.

Sandia is carrying out research and development on multiple aspects of lignocellulosic biofuels, including:

  • develop a fundamental understanding of lignocellulose recalcitrance to conversion through advanced imaging and spectroscopy
  • advanced biomass pretreatment to more efficiently liberate monomeric sugars from lignocellulose
  • enzyme engineering to produce thermotolerant and halotolerant enzymes
  • metabolic engineering of organisms for increased biofuel production
  • lifecycle analysis and techno-economic modeling of biorefineries

Project highlights:


DOE Joint BioEnergy Institute. The Joint BioEnergy Institute (JBEI) is a San Francisco Bay Area scientific partnership led by Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory (Berkeley Lab) and includes Sandia National Laboratories (Sandia), the JBEI is a $134 million, five-year program funded by the DOE Office of Biological and Environmental Research (BER) to enable the efficient conversion of lignocellulosic biomass into fuels.  Lignocelluose is a mixture of complex sugars and lignin, a non-carbohydrate polymer that provides strength and structure to plant cell walls.  By extracting simple fermentable sugars from lignocellulose and producing biofuels, the potential of the most energy-efficient and environmentally sustainable non-food feedtsocks can be realized. Sandia’s role at JBEI focuses primarily on: (1) optimizing the deconstruction of biomass into sugars using advanced biomass pretreatments, including ionic liquids, (2) improving lignocellulolytic enzymes with enhanced activity and stability for industrial process environments, (3) development of high-throughput assays using microfluidics, and (4) understanding how microbial communities degrade biomass and the translating that knowledge into optimized enzyme complexes capable of liberating monomic sugars from lignocellulose.

Co-development of Advanced Biofuels and Engines. This project is a joint bioscience-combustion science effort in collaboration with Sandia’s Combustion Research Facility and Professor Gary Strobel, a world-renown mycologist at Montana State University, to co-develop the next generation of both biofuels and engines in concert that will enable significant improvements over those that would be achieved through the more traditional approach of separate independent efforts for both engines and biofuels.  This will be accomplished by establishing a feedback loop between the bioscience and combustion science teams – as new biofuel pathways are discovered, the biofuels will be evaluated in advanced diagnostic engine platforms at the Combustion Research Facility, and the results will further refine the metabolic engineering efforts to produce the optimal biofuels. This project will use genomics, proteomics, and metabolic engineering to identify and manipulate the metabolic pathways in endophytes that are capable of producing “drop-in” biofuels, and then translate this knowledge into commercially viable microbial strains for scale-up and production.

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