Bay Area lab working on a new breed of biofuel

Engineers at Sandia National Laboratories in Livermore hope to innovate and foster energy independence from fossil fuels.

January 26, 2011 6:53:27 PM PST
Biochemists and engineers at Sandia National Laboratories in Livermore are heeding the call of President Barack Obama to innovate and to foster energy independence from fossil fuels.

The endophytic fungus, that hails from the forests of South America, can be engineered to make anti-cancer drugs, and even the minty flavor that goes into chewing gum or breath freshener. But inside an East Bay lab, researchers say it could produce a new breed of biofuel.

"These fungi can actually excrete some of the necessary proteins that would break down the cellulosic material and then convert that, it'll suck up the sugars from there, and convert that to hydrocarbon," Sandia National Laboratories biochemist Masood Hadi, Ph.D. said

The breakthrough here is that the fungus itself creates hydrocarbons without the time-consuming and costly process currently required to produce fuel for vehicles.

Sandia National Laboratories is funding this three-year, $3 million project, and it's taking a multi-disciplinary approach -- said to be unique in biofuel research. One lab is dedicated to the work with the fungus, in another they see how well it performs and at the third lab, combustion researchers test it in a new generation of engine.

"We can take the fuels that they're able to produce with their processes, understand the fundamental chemistry as well as their performance in real engines and then give the biochemists the feedback that they need to really hone their processes," Sandia National Laboratories combustion chemistry manager Tom Settersten, Ph.D. said.

Sandia believes the integrated approach will make a difference.

"We can get a good idea how this fuel is going to behave say in a spark engine. Is it going to knock a lot? Is it going to allow advanced spark engines that will be almost all turbo-charged before you boost the intake pressure more power," Sandia National Laboratories Senior Scientist John Dec, Ph.D. said.

The fungus-generated fuel will likely be a gasoline additive at first. Later, the percentage could increase, reducing the use of fossil fuel.

There is no specific timetable how soon this new breed of biofuel might be available commercially. However, the work on it comes at a very strategic time.