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Building On Nature

September 30, 2009

Biology inspires the pursuit of new capabilities in sensing and hydrocarbon production

Natural systems are the focus of two intriguing and imperative research areas: creating revolutionary capabilities for sensing and response; and obtaining hydrocarbons from plants and microorganisms.

The National Science Foundation (NSF) has announced 20 grants in these areas for FY 2009, awarding a total of $39,991,202 over four years to 94 investigators from 27 institutions through the NSF Office of Emerging Frontiers in Research and Innovation (EFRI).

“Big ideas are needed if we are to significantly advance the development of biosensing and biofuels,” said Thomas Peterson, NSF assistant director for engineering. “That’s why EFRI is stimulating high-risk research in these areas of national need.”

In the first area, researchers will study how fish move, how butterflies drink, how spiders see, and even how the Venus flytrap catches dinner, and then find ways to engineer these mechanisms for sensing and response into new materials and systems.

Other researcher teams will investigate the behavior of DNA, neurons and other biological tissues to discover how to harness their activity to produce materials or improve their function, or how to detect the beginnings of diseases such as cancer or immune disorders.

Sohi Rastegar, director of EFRI, said, “Working at the interface of living and engineered systems presents many challenges but also new opportunities for discoveries that will address a number of national needs, which include detecting precursors of serious diseases, protecting critical and aging infrastructures, and mitigating environmental hazards and pollution.”

A second group of researchers will investigate the production of hydrocarbons from biomass as an alternative to petroleum. Non-food sources of biomass with great energy potential include crops such as algae, switchgrass and poplar trees, and residues from lumber and agriculture.

“If an effective conversion pathway is found, biomass could provide a sustainable and significant source of gasoline and diesel fuels, as well as essential chemicals,” said Rastegar. “Furthermore, these green fuels and chemicals would be compatible with existing infrastructure.”

The researchers will produce hydrocarbons by pioneering processes for chemically converting plant material and by natural microbial and fungal processes that are even less-explored. They will also investigate methods for making hydrocarbon production fast, continuous, scalable, and cost-effective.

To maximize the efficiency of biomass conversion, some research teams will be breaking down even the tough plant material called lignin (typically an unused residue). Some researchers will turn waste heat into electricity. And some will tweak their processes–whether chemical or natural–to produce precisely the hydrocarbons we need.

“While results from EFRI investigations are uncertain,” continued Rastegar, “we are determined to pursue them, because their pay-off could be enormous.”

These EFRI projects all include a component for educating the future workforce in these areas, whether by engaging undergraduate- and graduate-level researchers, by developing interdisciplinary curricula, or by inspiring future generations through camps and outreach activities.

The NSF Directorate for Engineering created EFRI in 2007 to fund high-risk, interdisciplinary research that has the potential to transform engineering and other fields. The grants demonstrate the EFRI goal to inspire and enable researchers to expand the limits of our knowledge while advancing national priorities.

Image Caption: Growing microalgae with high oil content is one obstacle that a team at the University of Michigan will try to overcome. The researchers will also investigate the processing of moist algae at high heat and pressure to sustainably produce useful hydrocarbons from the algal oils. Credit: Phillip Savage, University of Michigan

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