UA biologist awarded $800,000 grant for biofuel research

by Talk Business & Politics staff (staff2@talkbusiness.net) 129 views 

A University of Arkansas biologist has received a four-year, $800,000 grant from the National Science Foundation (NSF) to research methods to improve the efficiency and environmental soundness in the production of biofuel, which includes ethanol and diesel made from sources such as plant material.

On Thursday (Aug. 30), the UA announced Ruben Michael Ceballos, an assistant professor in the Department of Biological Sciences, received the grant for the research that seeks to create a way to protect and enhance enzymes in the process to turn organic material into fuel. Ceballos will use a protein derived from microorganisms that live in acidic geothermal pools and springs to enhance the conversion process.

Most biofuel is produced using chemical catalysts, creating issues of handling hazardous chemicals and managing hazardous waste, according to a news release. The use of enzymes, which are biological catalysts, has been considered more environmentally sustainable but often less efficient. Ceballos wants to create a system to improve enzyme efficiency in the high temperature and extreme pH conditions involved in biofuel production.

He’s studying a protein derived from archaea, which are single-cell organisms that can live in geothermal springs and pools.

“They basically live in boiling battery acid,” Ceballos said. “There are tools in nature that we can use in industries where enzyme-mediated reactions occur under harsh reaction conditions.”

Other UA researchers involved in the project include Lauren Greenlee, assistant professor of chemical engineering, who will help to develop enzyme-recovery mechanisms; and Leandro Mozzoni, associate professor in crop, soil and environmental sciences, who will help to develop soy bean and rise straw biomass to test biofuel production reactions.

“After working on the proof-of-concept for this biotechnology for the past several years, it is great to see that other scientists at the national level understand the value of this work,” Ceballos said. “We look forward to investigating and developing the system further so that it may be commercialized and offer significant enhancements to the biofuels sector, or any other industry where enzyme-mediated reactions under harsh conditions are essential for production processes.”

While not directly related to the project, Ceballos and several graduate students will help to establish a science curriculum at Ozark Catholic Academy in Tontitown. The work is part of the outreach portion of the NSF grant and could create a source for future UA students and scientists, Ceballos said.

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