Breaking down plant cell walls: A few short stories in improving biofuels production processes

Event Date: 

Thursday, April 9, 2015 - 4:00pm

Event Location: 

  • ES 1519

Gregg T. Beckham, National Renewable Energy Laboratory

The economic viability of biomass conversion to transportation fuels and renewable chemicals hinges on the ability to efficiently break down plant cell walls to their constituent monomers and then upgrade the resulting monomers to value-added molecules. For cellulose, which is the most abundant polymer in cell walls, this is typically accomplished via mild thermochemical pretreatment and enzymatic hydrolysis, which taken together represent a significant cost of biomass deconstruction. The first part of this talk will focus on understanding and engineering the enzymes responsible for cellulose breakdown, namely fungal cellulases. Our group has combined computational and experimental approaches to identify rate-limiting steps and opportunities for engineering the enzymes for higher activity and stability. The second part of the talk will focus on lignin, which a heterogeneous aromatic polymer found in terrestrial plant cell walls for pathogen defense, structure, and water transport. Lignin is typically not converted to value-added molecules in biorefineries, but is rather slated for heat and power. Indeed, the adage in the biofuels industry is that one "can make anything from lignin except money". The primary reason for this technical barrier stems from the ability to deal with the intrinsic heterogeneity and recalcitrance of lignin. Our group has recently proposed a combined biological funneling and chemical catalysis approach that enables the ability to overcome these intrinsic problems with lignin, which may eventually offer a viable approach for cost effective upgrading of lignin to fuels and chemicals.

Gregg T. Beckham received his PhD and MSCEP in Chemical Engineering at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in 2007 as well as a BS in Chemical Engineering from Oklahoma State University 2002. He worked as a Senior Lecturer and Station Director for the David H. Koch School of Chemical Engineering Practice at MIT in 2004-2005 and again in 2007. In 2008, he began doing research in the National Bioenergy Center at the National Renewable Energy Laboratory. He currently works with an interdisciplinary research team of biologists, chemists, and engineers on multiple aspects of biochemical and thermochemical conversion of biomass to fuels, chemicals, and materials including cellulase enzyme improvements, biomass pretreatment, sugar conversion to fuels and chemicals, and lignin valorization.