As we face the reality of climate change and dropping stocks of oil, solutions are needed to meet the growing demand for clean and efficient fuels. Whilst there is much being done to reduce our dependence on traditional fuels, we also need to develop alternative fuels for this transition to occur. Professor Chris Easton from the Research School of Chemistry is using enzyme biotechnology to help advance this quest for new fuels.
“Enzymes are biological catalysts,” says Easton. “What that means is that they are biological elements that when applied to particular substances initiate chemical reactions. For example, termites can break down an organic compound called cellulose in a much more efficient way than we can do in a laboratory.”
Easton’s team, which has been funded along with teams around the world as part of the CSIRO’s Energy Transformed Flagship, is looking for enzymes that could be used to help create carbon neutral fuels from biomass. “Our research is focused on using enzyme biotechnology on components of plants and crops, such as cellulose and lignin. These are components that are found in the waste of crops and are typically not useful as foods. They are therefore normally just burnt after a crop has been harvested.”
Easton said that the aim is to treat biomass and produce hydrogen, which can then be transformed into formic acid, which is a safe, clean and transportable fuel option. “As a first step, our research is looking at the best way to use enzymes to break down cellulose and lignin and transform them into hydrogen.”
Dr. Hye-Kyung Kim leads the research team that is using the hydrogen produced from biomass for enzymatic formic acid production. “The current industrial process for formic acid production is energy intensive and therefore carbon costly. We are using an enzyme called Formate Dehydrogenase that uses hydrogen from crop waste and carbon dioxide from the atmosphere to produce formic acid at low temperature and neutral pH. This is a big step towards the production of carbon neutral fuels.”
Easton said that if successful this technology could be an important piece in the puzzle of sustainability. “The work we are doing is still in its early stages. At the moment we can use these enzymes on an experimental scale. We are hoping to eventually be able to commercialise our process, which would be important for future fuel technology.”