Researchers at the Joint BioEnergy Institute (JBEI) are working to transform biomass into energy-rich fuel molecules.
The Chemical & Engineering News article profiles JBEI after it recently filed its 100th patent application and published its 500th paper. Administered by Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory, JBEI is one of three Department of Energy-funded bioenergy research centers established in 2007 by the Office of Science to accelerate research breakthroughs related to advanced biofuels. The other two are at Oak Ridge National Laboratory and the University of Wisconsin, Madison.
JBEI hosts postdocs and visiting scientists from around the globe. It has a research partnership with three other national labs—Lawrence Livermore, Pacific Northwest, and Sandia. And it has academic partnerships with UC Berkeley, UC Davis, and the Carnegie Institution for Science. But unlike in most joint research groups, all JBEI scientists work together on one floor of offices and labs in Emeryville, California.
“We are a basic-science research institute, but are focused on the particular problems of biomass-to-biofuels transformations,” says Jay Keasling, JBEI Principal Investigator and Chief Executive Officer, just after greeting a visitor to the lab. And he is very particular about which such problems he wants his team to tackle. “We work on risky future stuff—what no company in its right mind would take on. It’s not corn, yeast, and ethanol—those are not interesting.”
Instead, JBEI researchers are zeroing in on concepts that others have decided are too difficult or would take too long to prove. Can a plant’s cell walls be engineered to more readily release its sugar building blocks? Is there a new chemistry that can break cell walls down? Can we identify a new fuel [biomass] candidate by its chemical structure and then engineer a microbe capable of producing it from sugar?
Sandia’s JBEI researchers have developed ionic liquids (molten salts that are liquid at room temp.) to attack cell walls and processes that harness their strong polarity to invade plant cell walls. They are pursuing several avenues to make ionic-liquid pretreatment commercially viable.
Thirty two Sandia researchers participate in JBEI’s Deconstruction and Technology divisions, including five JBEI directors and Blake Simmons as JBEI Chief Science & Technology Officer and Vice President of Deconstruction.