Prof. Banta Q&A: Genetic Engineering for Creating Biofuels

The federal government has awarded Scott Banta a $543,394 grant to launch new research on using genetic engineering to create less expensive, more efficient biofuels.

Banta, an associate professor of chemical engineering, has had significant success collaborating with colleagues in other departments in the School. He has worked with Professor Barclay Morrison III, of the Department of Biomedical Engineering, on a project seeking to create specific cell penetrating peptides that can cross the blood-brain barrier and target specific brain cell populations.
On this project Banta is working with two co-principal investigators: Kartik Chandran, an assistant professor of earth and environmental engineering, and Alan West, professor of chemical engineering.
Vice President Joe Biden announced the award as part of a $106 million program funding 37 energy research projects around the country. The Recovery Act Funding for the Advanced Research Projects Agency–Energy (ARPA–E) is administered by the Department of Energy (DOE).
Q – What are your project’s main objectives?
Prof. Banta – We are going to use genetic engineering to incorporate a new metabolic pathway into an organism that is currently used for wastewater treatment. The bacterium, N. europaea, has the ability to grow on ammonia and CO2. We will engineer it to create butanol, which is a biofuel that is compatible with the existing transportation infrastructure. The cells will fix CO2 from the atmosphere, and the ammonia will either be generated electrochemically, or it will be obtained during wastewater treatment. 
Q – What is new about this research?
Prof. Banta – Other researchers have worked on engineering organisms to make biofuels, but this will be the first time that an ammonia-oxidizing organism has been used for this purpose which places this research at the nexus of two critical global challenges – energy and water.
Q – What is the practical application?
Prof. Banta – The practical application is biofuel production. The carbon in the butanol will come from ambient CO2 and not from fossil fuels. The ammonia that is also required by the bacteria will come from renewable electrical energy or from wastewater treatment, meaning that the whole process will be carbon neutral. Butanol is an especially attractive biofuel as it is more compatible with the existing transportation infrastructure as compared to ethanol.
Q – What is the significance of this award for you, the department and/or the School?
Prof. Banta – This is a very important grant for us as the ARPA-E program funds potentially transformative research without the need for extensive preliminary results. Our idea is a very new concept that we believe will have a tremendous potential impact on society. We are very pleased that the ARPA-E program has recognized the importance of this concept, and we hope to develop this project with the ARPA-E funding so that we can eventually expand this technology into a working system for eventual large-scale implementation.

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