Berkeley Lab to Receive $8.6 Million in Recovery Act Funding for "Transformational" Energy Research Projects

May 3, 2010
By: Julie Chao, Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory

The U.S. Department of Energy (DOE)'s Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory (Berkeley Lab) has been awarded $8.6 million in Recovery Act funding for what the DOE calls "ambitious research projects that could fundamentally change the way the country uses and produces energy." The money will go towards four separate projects: one that will speed the development of materials that can absorb carbon dioxide emitted from power plants, another that will use a common soil bacterium to produce biofuels, and two that are aimed at developing new high-energy batteries for powering electric vehicles.

The projects are being funded through the DOE's Advanced Research Projects Agency-Energy (ARPA-E), whose mission is to invest in projects that will develop transformational energy technologies. Vice President Joe Biden announced last week a total of $106 million for 37 transformational energy research projects in three main areas: biofuels from electricity, batteries for transportation and zero-carbon coal.

"ARPA-E is awarding these grants to help our nation build a competitive clean energy industry that will mean jobs, economic growth and a sustainable energy future," said Berkeley Lab director Paul Alivisatos. "Berkeley Lab is proud to be involved in multiple projects that will play important roles in the success of this effort."


Jeffrey Long.
Berkeley Lab scientist Jeffrey Long

The carbon capture project, awarded $3,663,696, is led by chemist Jeffrey Long of Berkeley Lab's Materials Sciences Division. His goal is to find new materials that can absorb carbon dioxide and remove it from power plant flue gases, thus preventing it from escaping into the atmosphere. He will be targeting a class of materials called Metal Organic Framework compounds, which were developed only in the last decade and hold great promise for capturing carbon dioxide because of their tunable surface chemistry and record high internal surface areas.

The challenge is to rapidly investigate this new class of compounds, which have huge variability in possible structures, using automated, high-throughput materials synthesis and screening technology. The potential payoff at the end of this three-year project is a lower-cost way to perform carbon capture and sequestration, or CCS, which involves capturing carbon and storing it deep underground.

"CCS is already being tested on a big scale and is very close to implementation. This would be the next generation of materials to use in CCS," says Long. "The current capture process uses huge amounts of energy-roughly 30 percent of the power generated by a power plant. We're hoping we can get it down to 10 percent."

Long, along with Berkeley Lab scientists Berend Smit, Jeffrey Reimer, Maciej Haranczyk and Eric Masanet, will be working with two partner organizations on this project: Wildcat Discovery Technologies of San Diego, California, which will help build a new type of instrumentation to screen hundreds of compounds in parallel, and the Electric Power Research Institute, which will provide analysis to determine how best to use the material in a power plant once it is discovered.

The biofuels project, awarded $3,948,493, is led by Steve Singer, who holds appointments with Berkeley Lab's Earth Sciences Division and with the Joint BioEnergy Institute
Berkeley Lab scientist Steve Singer



Singer headshot.
Berkeley Lab scientist Steve Singer

(JBEI), a multi-institutional partnership led by Berkeley Lab that is working to replace gasoline and other petroleum-derived fuels with transportation fuels derived from the solar energy stored in plant biomass. The goal of his project is to genetically engineer new strains of a common soil bacterium, Ralstonia eutropha, now used in the production of bioplastics, so that it can be used in the production of advanced biofuels, including diesel and jet fuel. A key to the project's success will be the combination of the microbial system with a new electrochemical catalytic system that generates hydrogen from water.

"It's never been done before using this type of a combined microbial and electrochemical, or MEC system, but what we are basically looking to do is what a plant does in terms of photosynthesis, only instead of using sunlight, we will use electricity that can be generated from renewable sources such as solar, wind or wave power, which we will convert to hydrogen," says Singer. "This hydrogen can then be combined by the bacterium with carbon dioxide collected from a power plant, for example, to make fuel."

Ralstonia eutropha is already endowed with a natural ability to take hydrogen and carbon dioxide and make bioplastics and fatty acids, and techniques already exist for cultivating the microbe on an industrial scale. Singer and his colleagues want to re-route the microbe's existing metabolic pathways for biofuel production. To do so, they will make extensive use of the synthetic biology tools and techniques being developed at JBEI.

"We have this industrial organism, it has potential, why not kick its tires and see what it can do?" Singer says.

For the two battery research projects, Berkeley Lab is a sub-recipient, working as a partner with private industry to develop advanced batteries.

Applied Materials, Inc. of Santa Clara, California was awarded $4.4 million to develop ultra-high energy, low-cost lithium-ion batteries using a novel manufacturing process. Berkeley Lab will receive $675,000 over 2.5 years to provide component testing. Battery researchers Gao Liu and Vince Battaglia of the Environmental Energy Technologies Division (EETD) will be leading this effort.

For the second battery project, Sion Power Corp. of Tucson, Arizona will receive $5 million to develop high-energy lithium-sulfur batteries for electric vehicles. The research goal is to increase the battery's lifetime, allowing it to be recharged as many as 500 times, or more. Berkeley Lab will receive $300,000 over three years to help with research support and modeling. EETD's John Newman will lead this effort.

In addition to these projects, Jay Keasling, acting deputy director for Berkeley Lab and chief executive officer for JBEI, will be a key participant in a $6 million grant awarded to Ginkgo BioWorks of Boston, as the prime recipient, to genetically engineer E. coli bacterium that can produce isoctane, an important component of gasoline from carbon dioxide and water. Keasling is one of the world's foremost authorities on synthetic biology.

Separately, a Berkeley, California company that was launched in 1990 based on technology developed at Berkeley Lab, PolyPlus Battery, was awarded $5 million to work on lithium-air batteries for electric vehicles.

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