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EMSL Selects First-Ever Research Campaigns

Teams aim for groundbreaking results in catalysis, biomass processes

Two research teams will integrate EMSL’s advanced analytical and computational capabilities to attack challenging problems in biological and interfacial sciences.

The Department of Energy’s EMSL has selected two research campaigns that are expected to provide novel insights into catalytic reactions and biochemical processes. The campaigns will generate new analytical approaches and tools that could lead to high-value products from biomass sources.

EMSL had invited science teams from around the world to propose campaigns that would advance scientific understanding of a problem in one of two areas—biology or interfacial sciences—which explores the interactions that take place on and between materials surfaces.  The proposals were required to exploit EMSL’s multiple technology platforms and data integration capabilities. A team of reviewers identified two campaign proposals as being of high potential impact and requiring the integrated team and capability effort envisioned for campaigns.

Reaching NMR’s Catalysis Potential

The first campaign selected focuses on understanding catalytic reactions on the surfaces of advanced metal oxide-based materials.  The science community uses catalysis to more rapidly and efficiently carry out chemical reactions in areas ranging from energy production and storage, to limiting release of harmful pollutants from industrial processes and from vehicle transportation.

The EMSL selection committee was impressed with the team’s approach to develop powerful new capabilities using a combination of nuclear magnetic resonance (NMR) and computation to examine catalytic reactions on surfaces at the molecular level. Some of the more advanced NMR techniques have been difficult—though potentially very powerful and valuable—to apply to heterogeneous catalyst research. Not only will the campaign give the science community new NMR analytical capabilities, but also provide insights to make catalytic processes more efficient, and thus less costly to perform.

“This team brings together an extraordinary group of NMR practitioners and end users working on industrially relevant catalytic technologies,” said Don Baer, selection committee member and EMSL interim chief science officer.  “The capabilities and approaches developed will enable groundbreaking science in catalytic chemistry, and EMSL is very well placed to lead this field.”

The team consists of scientists from the University of California-Berkeley, Pacific Northwest National Laboratory (PNNL), Pennsylvania State University, and EMSL.

Optimizing Isoprene Production

The second campaign will improve understanding of how a hydrocarbon known as isoprene is created from biomass.  It involves scientists from Washington State University, EMSL, and Pacific Northwest National Laboratory. Isoprene is used as a feedstock chemical for products such as biofuels, rubber, elastomers, and certain medicines.

Scientists are very interested in understanding and optimizing isoprene production by bacteria as part of the effort to develop a method to increase the yield of isoprene from biomass. Yet finding key enzymes in the genetic pathway for bacteria to produce isoprene has proven elusive, thus limiting their use for making industrial-scale isoprene. The arduous process of gene hunting—taking months to extract and analyze genetic variants—has not identified the genes responsible for isoprene creation.

This research campaign uses a new, faster approach for this detective work. The team will vary isoprene production conditions and use EMSL’s functional genomics and advanced computational capabilities to reveal any genes that change when isoprene production does. Any genetic clues they find could pave the way for higher isoprene yields. 

“This proposal tackles important biological questions that have practical implications in the production of high-added-value products from biomass,” Baer said. “The project beautifully integrates the scientific expertise of the university team with the world-class capabilities at EMSL.”

The two teams began their work in December 2010.  The catalysis campaign team includes Chuck Peden, Jian Zhi Hu, Ja Hun Kwak, Yong Wang, and Donghai Mei, PNNL;  Enrique Iglesia, University of California, Berkeley; Jim Kubicki, Pennsylvania State University; and David Hoyt, Karl Mueller, Nancy Washton, Sarah D. Burton, Jesse A. Sears, Hardeep Mehta, Niri Govind, Eric Bylaska, and Amity Andersen, EMSL.

The isoprene team includes Birgitte K. Ahring and Junfeng Xue, Washington State University; Steven Wiley, Ljiljana Paša-Tolic, Bryan Linggi, and Nancy Isern, EMSL; and Paul Majors and Ron Taylor, PNNL.

Released: February 25, 2011