The National Science Foundation (NSF) has awarded $510,335 to a collaboration between North Dakota State University and Clarkson University researchers professors for a research project to improve conversion and reduce costs of making fuels from cellulosic biomass.

The goal of the project—“pH-Responsive Capsules for Enhanced Delivery and Recovery of Cellulases for Biomass Hydrolysis”—is to enhance conversion of cellulosic biomass into fermentable glucose to convert into ethanol or other chemicals or fuels. Their work aims at improving efficacy and reducing costs of cellulase enzymes needed for converting biomass to soluble sugars.

Andriy Voronov, NDSU assistant professor in the Department of Coatings and Polymeric Materials, and Scott Pryor, assistant professor in the Department of Agricultural and Biosystems Engineering, will receive $309,357. Sergiy Minko, chaired professor of chemistry at Clarkson University, Potsdam, N.Y., was awarded $200,978.

Enzymatic hydrolysis of plant cell wall structural carbohydrates into soluble and fermentable sugars has been technically achievable for decades. Despite significant advances in the past five years, the economical production and use of cellulase enzymes for biomass hydrolysis remain key hurdles, whether the targeted end product is hydrocarbons or economical cellulosic ethanol.

The key to conquering these obstacles according to the collaborating PIs Voronov and Pryor rests in placing the enzymes in nanostructured capsules. These hybrid organic-inorganic microcapsules are loaded with a cocktail of cellulase enzymes for the conversion of cellulose into fermentable glucose.

The capsules protect the enzymes and preserve their activity, allow for a simple reuse/recovery process for the enzymes, and provide an opportunity to regulate enzymatic reactions using external signals, such as pH. This enzyme recovery and reuse, facilitated through the encapsulation process and magnetic separation, are expected to have significant impacts on processing costs to produce biomass-derived sugars.

The PIs plan to create a website as a means of sharing data and plans between the research groups at the two universities, and to allow public access to follow aspects of the project.