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DOE Awards Wyss Institute $4.2 Million Grant to Develop Microbial Fuel Cells in National Effort to Change How the Country Produces Energy

BOSTON, MA — The Wyss Institute for Biologically Inspired Engineering at Harvard University announced today that it has been awarded a $4.2 million grant from the Department of Energy (DOE) to develop new approaches for advanced microbial biofuels as part of a national effort to accelerate innovation in clean technologies, increase America’s competitiveness, and create jobs.

The Wyss award is one of 37 ambitious research projects selected as having the most potential for high impact on national energy and economic goals from among 540 applicants. The $106 million in total funding comes through DOE’s Advanced Research Projects Agency – Energy (ARPA-E). The awards were announced by Vice President Joe Biden and Secretary of Energy Steven Chu during a Recovery Act cabinet meeting.

The ARPA-E awards were made in three critical areas of technology: more efficient production of advanced microbial biofuels (electrofuels); design of higher capacity and less expensive batteries for electric vehicles; and the removal of carbon pollution from coal-fired power plants more cost effectively.

The Wyss project, entitled "Engineering a Bacterial Reverse Fuel Cell," will focus on developing new approaches for advanced microbial biofuels. It will be led by Pamela Silver with Synthetic Biology co-pioneers George Church, of Harvard Medical School, and Jim Collins, of Boston University and the Howard Hughes Medical Institute, who are all founding core faculty members of the Wyss Institute, as well as Peter Girguis of Harvard’s Organismal and Evolutionary Biology Department. According to ARPA-E, this research project demonstrates the great potential of bringing experts together from other fields such as biology and medicine to address the nation’s energy challenges.

"We’re honored that our faculty are being recognized for their leadership at the national level and are receiving support to develop the innovative new bioinspired technologies that will be key to our competitiveness over the next 50 years," said Donald E. Ingber, M.D., Ph.D., Founding Director of the Wyss Institute. "This project fits perfectly with the Wyss Institute’s model of collaborating across scientific disciplines and across institutions to achieve the goal of using Nature’s engineering principles to create a more sustainable world."

Current technologies for making biofuels are highly inefficient. They rely on photosynthesis — either by converting plants to fuels or by harnessing photosynthetic organisms, such as algae — a process that is less than 1% efficient at converting sunlight to stored chemical energy.  In contrast, solar panels can absorb solar energy and convert about 15% of it into electricity.  The DOE’s goal is to convert this electricity into chemical fuels, such as gasoline or diesel fuel.

Wyss researchers will be developing a bacterium that uses electricity, which could come from renewable sources, to convert carbon dioxide into gasoline. The bacterium would act like a reverse fuel cell: where fuel cells use a fuel to produce electricity, this bacterium would start with electricity and produce a fuel.

Researchers will also construct a device that combines features of an electrochemical cell with a specialized microbial fermenter in which electricity can enter and drive bacterial metabolism. At the same time, they will be conducting research into the metabolism of the engineered bacteria. These efforts are expected to result in a new system that is significantly more efficient at converting sunlight into electricity.

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