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Harnessing Biotechnology to Accelerate Advanced Biofuels Production

April 11, 2016
Major advances in biotechnology are opening up opportunities in the emerging bioeconomy. Innovation in synthetic biology and metabolic engineering can lead to substantial improvements in conversion efficiencies for the production of advanced biofuels. This, in turn, can speed up the development and commercialization of bio-based products, making them attractive and affordable to industrial manufacturers. From expanding the potential of diverse microbial systems to enhancing the biocatalytic capabilities of enzymes, the application of biotechnology is accelerating the development of the advanced biofuel industry.

The U.S. Department of Energy’s Bioenergy Technologies Office(BETO) works to enable capabilities in biotechnology, as a major component of its conversion research and development portfolio. Advances in biotechnology have already led to achievements in reaching cellulosic ethanol cost-reduction targets and will help accelerate biomass and algae-derived hydrocarbon fuels compatible with existing infrastructure. A wide array of technologies are being used to maximize the effectiveness and efficiency of enzymes and microbes (e.g., bacteria, yeast, and cyanobacteria) that are capable of deconstructing lignocellulosic biomass and transforming sugar streams and biomass-derived oils, vapors, and gases into advanced biofuels. Several examples of ongoing projects that have received BETO funding include developing yeast strains with superior saccharification properties, a viable biological platform for the conversion of lignin into renewable chemicals, and fungal bioprocess technology to produce robust, efficient biocatalysts for biofuels.

This past year also marked an important first step for the Office in the area of synthetic biology. BETO is proposing to develop a Synthetic Biology Foundry, a multi-lab effort that will leverage the tools of synthetic biology to modify organisms and develop robust processing and scale-up capabilities that can be readily transferred to industry. This will ultimately reduce the lead time and cost of bringing new renewable fuels and chemicals to market. Deputy Assistant Secretary for Transportation Reuben Sarkar plans to outline this new initiative at the upcoming 2016 BIO World Congress on Industrial Biotechnology.

Advances in biotechnology can help overcome critical bottlenecks in biofuel production, leading to improved process efficiency and reduced operating costs. Ultimately, these breakthroughs will help drive the emerging bioeconomy,and reduce U.S. dependence on foreign oil and greenhouse gas emissions from the transportation sector, while encouraging the creation of a new domestic bioenergy industry.