October 22, 2008

New Sandia biofuels project focuses on enzyme engineering

LIVERMORE, CA —Biofuels researchers at Sandia National Laboratories have been awarded $600,000 in funding for a two-year, Department of Energy-funded effort titled “Development of Saccharifying Enzymes for Commercial Use.” The award is part of a joint proposal led by industry partner DSM.

Sandia engineer Rajat Sapra will serve as principal investigator on the project, whose additional partners include Abengoa Bioenergy Technologies and Los Alamos National Laboratory.

The work will focus on the use of enzymes that break down cellulose for conversion into ethanol and other industrial products that can be derived from biomass. It is a natural extension of Sandia’s current work with enzymes that break down cellulose in plant biomass to sugars for fermentation or biofuels production, Sapra says.

“DSM already has a well-established understanding of enzymes for industrial purposes and how to produce these enzymes for commercial purposes,” says Sapra, who explained that the company possesses a successful industrial fermentation process for non-biofuels applications in areas as diverse as animal feed and food and beverage industry.

“What we plan on doing is to take our expertise in structural and biophysical analysis, apply it to this particular type of enzymes, and help improve the properties of the enzyme through a structural and computational guided rational enzyme engineering process,” he says. Sandia will use various spectroscopic and molecular modeling techniques that will help scientists to better understand how these enzymes break down biomass. “Ultimately, what we’re trying to do is make better, more effective enzymes,” says Sapra.

The project is one of four DOE-funded initiatives announced recently. Covering a four-year period, nearly $34 million has been committed by the Department for the projects, the focus of which will be an extensive enzyme development program with applications in cellulose-based biorefineries for the production of biofuels.

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Sandia is a multiprogram laboratory operated by Sandia Corporation, a Lockheed Martin company, for the U.S. Department of Energy’s National Nuclear Security Administration. With main facilities in Albuquerque, N.M., and Livermore, Calif., Sandia has major R&D responsibilities in national security, energy and environmental technologies, and economic competitiveness.

Sandia news media contact: Mike Janes, 925-294-2447