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The DOE Science News Source is a Newswise initiative to promote research news from the Office of Science of the DOE to the public and news media.
  • 2017-06-21 13:05:49
  • Article ID: 676848

Oxygen: The Jekyll and Hyde of Biofuels

Scientists are devising ways to protect plants, biofuels and, ultimately, the atmosphere itself from damage caused by an element that sustains life on earth.

  • Credit: Image courtesy of Nathan Johnson, Pacific Northwest National Laboratory

    Funded by the Department of Energy's Office of Science, scientists are devising ways to blunt reactive oxygen atoms' impact on producing biofuels.

Vital to life on this planet, oxygen has a sinister and ravenous side that harms plants and biofuel production. That's why the Department of Energy's Office of Science supports research to tame oxygen's dark side.

For more than 2 billion years, oxygen from algae and later, trees, shrubs and other plants has spread across the planet and reacted with nearly everything. "Oxygen the element is common in the universe," said Stephen Herbert, who leads the Photosynthesis Systems program at the Department of Energy's Office of Science. "However, you don't usually see it as a gas, except on earth."

When the levels of this odorless, tasteless, colorless gas first began to climb, it rusted dissolved iron in the oceans. Then the gas began to build up and form the planet's protective ozone layer and, eventually, became the breathable atmosphere we know today.

Oxygen gas is involved in reactions all around you. It's vital in creating the energy that fuels cells in our bodies and in plants.

Protecting Nature's Photosynthesis Factories

Inside rose bushes and other green plants, photosynthesis relies on a complex clump of proteins called Photosystem II. These proteins are vital to the chain of reactions that take in water, carbon dioxide and sunlight to produce oxygen and energy — the reaction we know as photosynthesis

But if a plant gets too much light, that critical group of proteins pumps out reactive oxygen-containing molecules, such as hydrogen peroxide, a common fizzy antiseptic, that wreak havoc on the plant. Why this happens and how to stop it are questions that drove Terry Bricker at Louisiana State University and his colleagues to determine exactly how these reactive molecules workExternal link. Starting with spinach, the team isolated Photosystem II, the clump of proteins that produces the oxygen in our air. They exposed the cluster of proteins to a lot of sunlight, essentially giving it a sunburn. "It is only when it gets ‘sunburnt' that it makes reactive oxygen molecules that can damage photosynthesis," Bricker said.

Bricker and his team found that the reactive oxygen molecules attack specific amino acid building blocks in Photosystem II. The oxygen attacks numerous amino acids if there is too much light, essentially paralyzing the protein and hampering plant growth.

That's a problem when it comes to growing biomass for fuels or crops to feed hungry people.

Knowing how the oxygen assaults plants could offer insights for building up nature's defenses. Researchers at Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory in California and at the University of Illinois could help prevent oxygen damage in plants by stopping harmful reactions earlier in the process. They altered how the plants express certain genes, allowing for photosynthesis that is more efficient and avoiding harmful hydrogen peroxide and other molecules.

The team targeted a trio of genes, bits of genetic material that form a plant's chromosomes. These genes are involved in protecting plants from overexposure to sunlight. By boosting the expression of the genes, the team saw a 20 percent increase in plant growth withoutExternal link adding more water or fertilizer. "We thought this was impossible not that long ago," Herbert said. This proof that photosynthesis could be improved was supported by a $25 million grant from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation. Learning enough about oxygen and photosynthesis to design the improvement was supported by grants from the DOE Office of Science and other basic science funding over more than a decade.

Targeting the Troublemakers

When using plants to create fuels, cutting the right oxygen atoms from glucose, the sugary fuel resulting from photosynthesis, is challenging. The problem is that oxygen makes up roughly half of a glucose molecule. Scientists need to remove just the right oxygen atoms to make sure they get energy-dense fuels, not weak substitutes.

Removing the right atoms from glucose and creating a usable fuel or chemical precursor typically requires two reactions. Scientists remove an oxygen atom from glucose to create a chemical abbreviated HMF. They use a second reaction to remove another oxygen atom and create a slightly different molecule called DMF, and that's where it gets tricky. The materials that drive the reactions to create DMF can be aggressive. They don't stop when they've produced DMF. They take out more oxygen. They keep reacting and turn the DMF into unwanted products.

Researchers tried a different approach. Instead of trying to tame the one aggressive catalyst, the material that drives the reaction but isn't consumed by it, they gave it a partner in crime. Would adding a second Mr. Hyde add stability or chaos? Hinder or help?

The researchers wrapped a thin layer of cobalt around tiny particles of platinum. As the HMF flows through the catalyst, the cobalt hinders HMF's oxygen-containing ring, keeping it from reacting in unwanted ways. At the same time, however, cobalt "paints" targets on the HMF. Platinum homes in on the targets, removes the targeted oxygen atoms and creates the fuel DMF.

This mixture "was much more stable than either of the pure metals," said Raymond J. Gorte, professor at the University of Pennsylvania. Gorte and his colleagues are part of the Catalysis Center for Energy Innovation, an Energy Frontier Research Center funded by the DOE Office of Science and headquartered at the University of Delaware.

They are now looking at other combinations of metals that don't involve expensive, precious metals. "It's a catalyst waiting for a process that's commercially viable," Gorte said.

The Search for Understanding Continues

Knowing what drives oxygen's behavior is crucial to getting what we need, whether that's less waste when producing biofuels or better biofuel stock by managing photosynthesis. "If photosynthesis stops, all the oxygen in the atmosphere would be consumed by chemical reactions," Herbert said. "There would be nothing left to breathe." Photosynthesis is the Dr. Jekyll oxygen personality everyone wants at their Victorian dinner party. The trick for scientists, it appears, is to regain control of oxygen's rascally Mr. Hyde persona.

 

The Office of Science is the single largest supporter of basic energy research in the physical sciences in the United States and is working to address some of the most pressing challenges of our time. For more information please visit https://science.energy.gov.

Kristin Manke is on detail as a Communications Specialist in the Office of Science, kristin.manke@science.doe.gov.

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Ultrathin Device Harvests Electricity From Human Motion

Imagine slipping into a jacket, shirt or skirt that powers your cell phone, fitness tracker and other personal electronic devices as you walk, wave and even when you are sitting down. A new, ultrathin energy harvesting system developed at Vanderbilt University's Nanomaterials and Energy Devices Laboratory has the potential to do just that.

Energy-Efficient Accelerator Was 50 Years in the Making

With the introduction of CBETA, the Cornell-Brookhaven ERL Test Accelerator, Cornell University and Brookhaven National Laboratory scientists are following up on the concept of energy-recovering particle accelerators first introduced by physicist Maury Tigner at Cornell more than 50 years ago.

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Titan Simulations Show Importance of Close 2-Way Coupling Between Human and Earth Systems

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For the first time, scientists have trapped a noble gas in a two-dimensional porous structure at room temperature. This achievement will enable detailed studies of individual gas atoms in confinement--research that could inform the design of new materials for gas separation and nuclear waste remediation.

Mica Provides Clue to How Water Transports Minerals

In a new study from the U.S. Department of Energy's (DOE) Argonne National Laboratory, in collaboration with the University of Illinois at Chicago and the University of Delaware, chemists have been able to look at the interface between water and muscovite mica, a flat mineral commonly found in granite, soils and many sediments. In particular, the researchers looked at the capture and release of rubidium - a metal closely related to but more easily singled out than common elements like potassium and sodium.


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Construction Begins on International Mega-Science Experiment to Understand Neutrinos

In a unique groundbreaking ceremony held this afternoon at the Sanford Underground Research Facility in Lead, South Dakota, a group of dignitaries, scientists and engineers from around the world marked the start of construction of a massive international experiment that could change our understanding of the universe. The Long-Baseline Neutrino Facility (LBNF) will house the international Deep Underground Neutrino Experiment (DUNE), which will be built and operated by a group of roughly 1,000 scientists and engineers from 30 countries.

Buchanan Named Deputy for Science and Technology at Oak Ridge National Laboratory

Michelle Buchanan, an accomplished scientific leader and researcher, has been appointed Deputy for Science and Technology at the Department of Energy's Oak Ridge National Laboratory by new Lab Director Thomas Zacharia.

Neutrino Project to Fuel Particle Physics Research

Over the next decade, 800,000 tons of rock will be excavated from the former Homestake Mine in Lead, South Dakota, to accommodate a particle detector filled with 70,000 tons of liquid argon cooled to -300 degrees Fahrenheit to study neutrinos beamed from Fermilab in Illinois. It's called the Deep Underground Neutrino Experiment.

Berkeley Lab to Lead Multimillion-Dollar Geothermal Energy Project

The Department of Energy's Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory (Berkeley Lab) will lead a new $9 million project aimed at removing technical barriers to commercialization of enhanced geothermal systems (EGS), a clean energy technology with the potential to power 100 million American homes.

PNNL Scientist Ruby Leung Appointed a Battelle Fellow

Ruby Leung of the Department of Energy's Pacific Northwest National Laboratory has been named a Battelle Fellow -- the highest recognition from Battelle for leadership and accomplishment in science. She is one of eight Battelle fellows at PNNL.

Gu and Paranthaman Named ORNL Corporate Fellows

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DOE Funds Center for Bioenergy Innovation at ORNL to Accelerate Biofuels, Bioproducts Research

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Grant Focuses on 'Hydrogen Sponge' for Use in Fuel-Cell Vehicles

Finding practical hydrogen storage technologies for vehicles powered by fuel cells is the focus of a $682,000 grant from the U.S. Department of Energy, awarded to Mike Chung, professor of materials science and engineering, Penn State.

Engineers Win Energy Department Grants to Help Develop a Reliable, Resilient Power Grid

Two Iowa State electrical engineers have won Energy Department grants to help improve the country's power grid. The projects' goals include addressing the challenges of adding high levels of intermittent power sources to the grid, mainly wind and solar power.

Heart of Matter Studies Resonate with Award Winner

Raul Briceno was presented with the 2017 Kenneth G. Wilson Award for Excellence in Lattice Field Theory on June 22. The award citation noted his "groundbreaking contributions to the study of resonances using lattice QCD."


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Scientists Program Yeast to Turn Plant Sugars into Biodiesel

Redox metabolism was engineered in Yarrowia lipolytica to increase the availability of reducing molecules needed for lipid production.

Soils Could Release Much More Carbon than Expected as Climate Warms

Deeper soil layers are more sensitive to warming than previously thought.

Weaving a Fermented Path to Nylons

Microbial enzymes create precursors of nylon while avoiding harsh chemicals and energy-demanding heat.

Loosening of Lignocellulose: Switchgrass and Success in Sugar Release

Using a genetically modified line of switchgrass, scientists reduced plant cell wall recalcitrance while increasing sugar release over three generations.

Extending the Life of Lithium-Ion Batteries

Scientists offer new insights into how the source of electrons in batteries fails.

Unraveling the Molecular Complexity of Cellular Machines and Environmental Processes

State-of-the-art mass spectrometer delivers unprecedented capability to scientists.

Speeding Up Catalysts for Energy Storage

Researchers develop the fastest synthetic catalyst for producing hydrogen gas, potentially leading to a new environmentally friendly, affordable fuel.

Watching Neutrons Flow

Like water, neutrons seek their own level, and watching how they flow may teach us about how the chemical elements were made.

FIONA to Take on the Periodic Table's Heavyweights

FIONA (For the Identification Of Nuclide A) is a newly installed device designed to measure the mass numbers of individual atoms of heavy and superheavy elements. FIONA will let researchers learn about the shape and structure of heavy nuclei, guide the search for new elements, and offer better measurements for nuclear fission and related processes.

Laser Stripping Powers Protons

Researchers demonstrate a new technique that could lead to significantly higher power proton beams to answer tough scientific questions.


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