Professor Martin Polz
PI at MIT
Professor Andreas Henschel
PI at Masdar Institute
This project addresses the question of how microbial communities relevant for bioenergy systems provide reliable and predictable function for conversion of biomass to energy relevant substrates, such as biodiesel, alcohols, methane, and hydrogen. These substrates represent natural outputs of microbial communities, and result from complex interactions of photosynthetic organisms with microbes, which play crucial roles in bioenergy systems. First, in biodiesel production systems, microbes are essential for yield optimization as they provide nutrients and growth factors to photosynthetic organisms, and protect them from pathogens and competitors. Second, to achieve stable and efficient generation of bioenergy relevant chemicals from dead biomass, complex microbial community interactions need to be understood for optimal output while keeping the system stable versus biotic and abiotic disturbances. Moreover, the simultaneous production of biodiesel from lipids and biofuels from degradation of the remaining biomass improve the economic viability.
The main focus is on unraveling systems-level interactions to identify how microbial communities achieve stable outputs and functions. The approach is based on the rationale that nature has optimized microbial communities to achieve remarkably stable performance even when faced with environmental fluctuations and perturbations. This stability is encoded in the genomes of the microbial species, which assemble into interacting communities. In order to achieve the same stability in operation of open, industrial scale bioenergy systems, one has to understand nature's design principles and engineer them into man-made systems from the ground up.
Securing our global energy future requires a diverse portfolio of technologies and resources that are adaptable to local conditions. Marine algae are a viable bioenergy source for Abu Dhabi and other dry regions of the world bordering oceans since large-scale ocean ponds for algal farming can easily be established. Moreover, the modern environmental and biotechnological methods developed in this proposal are easily transferrable to other applications relevant to the future development of Masdar Institute and Abu Dhabi, including biomedical and environmental applications.