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National Research Council (US) Chemical Sciences Roundtable. Bioinspired Chemistry for Energy: A Workshop Summary to the Chemical Sciences Roundtable. Washington (DC): National Academies Press (US); 2008.

Cover of Bioinspired Chemistry for Energy

Bioinspired Chemistry for Energy: A Workshop Summary to the Chemical Sciences Roundtable.

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5Partnerships and Integration

Workshop organizer Doug Ray remarked at the start of the workshop, that this was an opportunity for participants to reach across disciplines and learn from one another. A number of speakers reiterated similar messages in their talks, and highlighted the need for partnerships, and other efforts that bring different sectors and disciplines together to advance bioinspired chemistry approaches for energy applications. Various speakers and workshop participants presented their thoughts on these needs.


Brent Erickson of Biotechnology Industry Organization (BIO) discussed the importance of partnerships among companies. He thinks that large companies with broad skills in biotechnology or those that have good biotechnology partners will capture the full value creation and benefit in the chemicals and fuels markets. Smaller companies, said Erickson, can benefit by partnering with each other or with larger companies, or they can forge strategic partnerships with industrial biotech companies. Henry Bryndza of DuPont stressed how important partnerships are for success. For DuPont, there is a complex value chain driven by market disruptions that require partnerships and integrated science approaches to make a difference. He said, “We really need partnerships…. We are partnering in virtually all of these areas for a couple of reasons. One is that we can’t do it all ourselves. The second is that in some cases, partners bring market-channel access that we don’t have.”

As discussed in Chapter 2, Michael Clarke of the National Science Foundation’s (NSF’s) Chemistry Division talked about an NSF program that forms partnerships in academe. The program was originally called the Chemical Bonding Centers but is now the Centers for Chemical Innovation. NSF makes a number of relatively small awards, around $500,000, to fund a group of scientists to collaborate on a major chemistry problem. Harry Gray, Kitt Cummins, Nate Louis, Dan Nocera, and others are working on a project involving the direct conversion of sunlight into fuel. They are in the initial stages of the program and have received about $500,000 so far. After several years, the research teams can apply for funding up to several million dollars per year.

Brent Erickson of BIO, Henry Bryndza of DuPont, and Mark Emptage of DuPont presented several more examples of projects involving partnerships among and between industry, academe, and national laboratories:

  • The company POET is working with Novozymes to develop a no-cook cold enzyme saccharification step that will reduce the amount of energy for conventional ethanol production.
  • POET and Ethanex have developed an improved fractionation process so that when corn is ground, a much finer separation of all the different components of the corn kernel results. In combination with the no-cook process fractionation, this leads to a 6 percent increase in ethanol yield. Some of the enzyme hydrolysis waste is put back in the broiler along with the corn stover and cob fiber to generate electricity.
  • Cargill has been working on developing a biological route from corn sugar to 3-hydroxypropionic acid (3 HP) for about five years, but could not solve the last step. They then decided to partner with Codexis, which used their metabolic engineering high-throughput screening to figure out how to do it biologically. One of the products of this process is acrylic acid, which is about a $4 billion global industry. Erickson noted that producing 3 HP from corn sugar is much cheaper and more environmentally friendly than making it from petroleum. Cargill is now working to commercialize this process.
  • Cargill and Ashland are going to work together to take the glycerine from biodiesel production in Europe to make propylene glycol.
  • DuPont’s cellulosic ethanol program is a consortium effort involving other companies, government laboratories, and academia. A wide variety of chemical and biological technologies is being looked at to convert mass into concentrated bio oil. According to Henry Bryndza, DuPont representatives think that the variation in biomass feedstocks is going to require an integration of sciences and multiple technologies.
  • An integrated corn biorefinery project has DuPont partnering with Michigan State University, the National Renewable Energy Laboratory (NREL), and Vernium Corp. The project is funded by the Department of Energy using a 50/50 cost-share approach, where companies contribute 50 percent of the funding. Pioneer, a DuPont-owned seed company, and John Deere work on feedstock harvest and transport. Michigan State is working on a life-cycle assessment of farming practices to understand the sustainability of feeding corn stover into the process. DuPont and Verenium are working on developing new enzymes for the hydrolysis of corn stover to fermentable sugars. NREL has developed several technologies for pretreatment with ethanologenic fermentation organisms.


Bryndza thinks the integration of multiple sciences and technologies is necessary. He said that it takes more than biology; chemistry technologies are needed as well as mechanical technologies. Bryndza also believes integration is important in finding the best solution. He thinks that if scientists approach energy problems from either a biological perspective or a chemical perspective, it will not work economically.

During the “Fundamental Aspects” discussion (Chapter 3) Marcetta Darensbourg of Texas A&M University said that her team’s work could not be done without the help of protein crystallographers. She said that there needs to be support for chemists, biologists, and computational chemists.

Sharon Haynie of DuPont said that it is important not to forget the large infrastructure necessary to reach bioinspired chemistry for energy goals, including analytical, computational, and engineering components. Haynie believes that an integrative approach is necessary to reach such goals, and that it is important to acknowledge the roles of allies in various scientific and engineering fields.

Mark Emptage of DuPont talked about how critical integration is when transferring biomass on the farm to fuels in automobiles. He said that no single company has all the necessary technologies, so it is important to work together.

During the discussion after the “Robust Implementation” session (Chapter 4), Alex Harris of Brookhaven National Laboratory discussed integrating both ideas and materials. He believes inorganic concepts need to be integrated with life processes to make energy-producing or conversion schemes work. Harris referred to examples in the presentations that described different approaches of life systems compared with engineered systems in terms of how a charge is transported from one place to another and whether it is stored as chemical energy or transported as charger carriers. He asked, “Are we going to learn from life systems’ basic principles of thermodynamics and chemical processes? Is that more likely to be the productive route than to mimic what they’re actually doing?” Harris also asked about the challenges in integrating bioinspired systems with inorganic ones. G. Tayhas Palmore of Brown University explained that there needs to be an integration of both ideas and materials, and that a multidisciplinary team will help address the challenges presented.


During the discussion after the “Industry Perspectives” session (Chapter 2), Daniel Nocera of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology highlighted the need for an honest broker. He thinks that scientists can be honest brokers but asked the group to identify an organization that could be an effective, honest broker to guide scientists toward strategic investment.


During the discussion after the “Robust Implementation” session (Chapter 4), Daniel Nocera declared that academia, national labs, and industry each have their own distinct roles. He said that academics should be working on problems that nobody else wants to work on because there is no financial payback. Eric Rohlfing of the Department of Energy talked about how difficult it is for physical scientists to understand biological systems.

Copyright © 2008, National Academy of Sciences.
Bookshelf ID: NBK4095


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