Cheaper Methods Developed to Help Create Fuel From Plants

New discoveries could make biofuel production more efficient.

Chemists, engineers create key components of energy production in the lab.

Scientists already know cheaper, more efficient ways to carry out chemical reactions in the hearts of many biological processes, which can lead to better ways to create biofuels from plants.

Scientists around the world have been trying for years to try to create biofuels and other bioproducts; This study, published in the journal Scientific Report, indicates that it is possible to do so.

“The process of converting sugar into alcohol must be very efficient if you want the final product to compete with fossil fuels,” said Venkat Gopalan, senior author of the paper and professor of chemistry and biochemistry at The Ohio State University. “The process of how to do it is well established, but the cost makes it competitive, even with significant government subsidies. This new development will probably help lower costs.”

At the heart of the invention: Cheaper and simpler methods of creating “helper molecules” that allow carbon in cells to be energy. These helper molecules (called chemical cofactors) are nicotinamide adenine dinucleotide (NADH) and its derivatives (NADPH). This cofactor in its reduced form has long been described as a key component for converting sugar from plants into butanol or ethanol for fuel. Both cofactors also play an important role in slowing down the metabolism of cancer cells and have been the target of treatments for some cancers.

But NADH and NADPH are expensive.

“If you can reduce production costs by half, it will make biofuels a very attractive additive to make flexible fuels and gasoline,” said Vish Subramaniam, senior author of a paper and recently retired professor of engineering in Ohio State. “Butanol often does not work as an additive because it is not cheap. But if you can make it cheap, suddenly the calculus will change. You can reduce the cost of butanol by half, as the cost is tied to the use of this cofactor. “

To create this reduced coofactor in the laboratory, researchers built electrodes with nickel and copper, two inexpensive elements. Electrodes that allow them to create NADH and NADPH of the same oxidized form. In the laboratory, researchers can use NADPH as a cofactor in the production of alcohol from other molecules, tests performed by them deliberately show that the electrodes formed can help convert biomass – plant cells – into biofuels. The work was carried out by Jonathan Kadowaki and Travis Jones, two engineering and aerospace engineering students at the Subramaniam lab, and Anindita Sengupta, a postdoctoral researcher at the Gopalan lab.

But because NADH and NADPH are the core of the energy conversion process inside the cell, these findings can help other synthetic applications.

Subramaniam’s earlier work showed that the electromagnetic field could slow the spread of some breast cancers. He retired from Ohio State on December 31, 2020.

This discovery is connected, he said: It could be that scientists could more easily and efficiently control the flow of electrons in some cancer cells, potentially slowing growth and the ability to metastasize.

Subramaniam also spent much of his scientific career later exploring if scientists could create synthetic plants, something that would use solar energy to convert carbon dioxide into oxygen. On a fairly large scale, he said, such creations could potentially reduce the amount of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere and help discuss climate change.

“I have always been interested in the question, ‘Can we make synthetic plants? Can we do something that can solve this global warming problem with carbon dioxide?'” Subramaniam said. “If it is not practical to do so with crops because we are constantly destroying them through deforestation, is there any other inorganic way to do this?”

This finding could be a step towards that goal: Plants use NADPH to convert carbon dioxide into sugar, which in turn becomes oxygen through photosynthesis. Making NADPH more accessible and more affordable can lead to the production of artificial photosynthesis reactions.

But the most likely and most direct application is for biofuels.

That researchers came together for this rare scientific examination: Biochemists and engineers do not often conduct joint laboratory research.

Gopalan and Subramaniam met in a brainstorming session held by the Ohio State State Applied Plant Science (CAPS) Center, where they were told to think about “big sky ideas” that could help some of the biggest problems in society. Subramaniam told Gopalan about his work with electrodes and cells, “and anything else we know, we’re discussing this project,” Gopalan said. “We will definitely not talk to each other if not for the CAPS workshop.”

References: “Copper-based copper oxide for direct NADPH regeneration” by JT Kadowaki, TH Jones, A. Sengupta, V. Gopalan and VV Subramaniam, January 8, 2021, Scientific Report.
DOI: 10.1038 / s41598-020-79761-6

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