Saturday, November 06, 2010

ARPA-E Looking At Direct "Light to Fuels" Engineering of Organisms

The US Department of Energy has its own ARPA, called ARPA-E. The agency will be holding a workshop in Arlington, VA, on 2 December 2010 with an optional session on 3 December. The goal is to use advanced tools of genetics and photobiophysics to create organisms (presumably microbes) which have been optimised to create liquid fuels directly from sunlight -- skipping the lignocellulosic biomass step.
Specifically, ARPA-E is interested in exploring interdisciplinary project opportunities that combine genomic information, genetic engineering, classical genetic selection, and photobiophysics for:

Increasing productive light absorption. How can organisms be engineered to better use the available solar resource for significantly enhanced production of biofuels? Topics may include: expanding the photosynthetically active spectrum, altering the photoprotective response, tailoring the structure and composition of organisms to better capture light, and the introduction of light-powered proton pumps.

Altering organism metabolism to increase the energy captured as liquid fuels. After light energy is captured, how can the ideal biological system for the production of biofuels be created? Topics may include: capture of high-energy intermediates, alternatives to RuBisCO carbon fixation, bypassing photorespiration, and redirecting resources towards optimal fuel production.

Applying novel genetic selection strategies to optimize fuel production strains. How can novel selection or screening strategies be employed to favor increased liquid fuel yields? Topics may include: development of stable symbiotic co-cultures that increase fuel production, adaptation of production organisms to stresses that favor overproduction of fuel molecules, and sexual selection strategies based on increased energy yields.

Special attention will be directed towards identifying low-cost, scalable strategies to develop highly efficient photosynthetic systems quickly, without requiring extensive, basic, R&D. In general, ARPA-E supports projects that have a high degree of technical or execution risk, beyond the range of typical government R&D funding. _GCC

The Al Fin Advanced Research Projects Agency, ARPA-AF, projects that in ten years direct microbial fuels will be competitive with petroleum fuels. But it will require roughly another ten years for microbial fuels to scale to the size of a medium sized petroleum company. It is good for ARPA-E to help to stimulate research in this area, as long as they know that microbial fuels would have been developed anyway, probably just as quickly.

But times are tough all over, and every tiny branch of the US government will soon have to justify its very existence, as the reality of spending cuts comes to Washington DC at long last.



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