Scientists Explore Enzymes for Petroleum-Free Fuels

Scientists Explore Enzymes for Petroleum-Free Fuels

New insights from a collaborative team at Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory (Berkeley Lab), Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory (LLNL), and UC Davis, are deepening our understanding of how enzymes behave, and how they can potentially assist with biofuel and pharmaceutical production.

Reducing our reliance on fossil fuels is vital if we wish to create more sustainable energy solutions in the future. However, there are certain issues that come with manufacturing petroleum-free fuels that have hindered efforts for large scale, efficient production, and therefore commercial viability.

Fortunately, there are scientists, much like the team from Berkeley Lab, LLNL, and UC Davis, who are diligently working towards technological improvements and new methods of observing chemical behaviour. In this case, researchers have developed an experimental new system to more accurately capture enzymatic reactions and how they can affect the degradation of cellulose.

During the study, the research team used a technique called operando spectroscopy via Fourier Transform Infrared spectromicroscopy (FTIR). This technology uses infrared light to more accurately observe, in real-time, the structural behaviour and changes of cellulose during different enzymatic reactions. This light was provided by the Advanced Light Source (ALS), a specialised particle accelerator at Berkeley that’s designed to generate a wide spectrum of light through electron movement. 

It was through this observational and measuring technology that the scientists were able to monitor how the structural design of cellulose impacted the enzymatic reactions. 

For context, cellulose is a polysaccharide – which means it consists of multiple ‘sugar’ molecules held together by covalent bonds, in this case glucose. Whilst covalent bonds are typically easier to break apart than ionic (as rather than a complete exchange, they’re sharing electrons which is a less stable arrangement), the bonds in cellulose are stabilised by hydrogen bonds. And it’s these hydrogen bonds that the scientists found to be hampering the enzymatic reaction and slowing any cellulose depolymerisation (which is the process of breaking a long chain of molecules into smaller ones).

But why is this important for biofuel production? Cellulose is a key compound in the formation of plant cell walls that contributes to their strength on a cellular level. But this also impacts how effectively degradation methods work when it comes to breaking plant matter down for the manufacture of biomass-based fuels.

Using this innovative observational technique, future tests could potentially build upon this foundation to explore the optimisation of enzymatic processing, and contribute towards more sustainable solutions to future problems.

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