Big dollars for green energy — and for a unique University of Montana program — arrived this week at the UM Native American Research Laboratory (NARL), considered the only such research facility in the nation for Native college students.
NARL Director Michael Ceballos said the laboratory has received a $300,000 two-year grant from the National Science Foundation to develop a new process that boosts the efficiency of ethanol production. The goal is to perfect an enzyme technology that makes celullosic ethanol — a high octane, renewable fuel produced from the stalks and stems of plants — easier to make and cheaper to buy.
“What the technology can do is make the process of producing ethanol more efficient, which means lower costs, so it can be more competitive with fossil fuels,” explained Ceballos, who along with directing the lab is also a research assistant professor at UM. “The potential is there.”
Ceballos first studied the new approach during work he did at the NASA Ames Research Center in California, in collaboration with NASA scientists. His research involves proteins from tiny bacteria-like microorganisms called (deep breath needed here) hyperthermophilic archaea, which live in the world’s harshest, hottest habitats — such as in volcanic hot springs in Yellowstone. His findings? The enzymes isolated from these hyperthermophiles can help reduce tough plant materials like switchgrass and corn stover into an ethanol-ready mush.
“One of the most inefficient processes is breaking down the biomass and reducing it to simple sugars that can be used for ethanol production,” Ceballos said.
In preliminary research, scientists found that using the new enzyme technology more than doubled the efficiency of the breakdown process. “So the grant allows us to further tinker with this novel biotechnology to see if we can get, say, a 10-to-15-fold increase in sugar reduction efficency,” Ceballos said. “That’s going to make it competitive.”
The $300,000 grant is the second largest that Ceballos has obtained for the two-year-old NARL, which provides hands-on research opportunities for Native Americans, non-Natives and international students. The program has attracted more than 55 undergraduate and graduate students representing 22 different tribes across the country.
Last year, NARL snagged a $750,000 NASA grant — split between UM, Montana State University, and Portland State University — to study archaea and the viruses that infect them.
Several other Native scientists are joining Ceballos in the latest NARL research project, according to UM. They include Don Benn, a Navajo who is a former science instructor at Diné College in Arizona and is now a UM visiting assistant professor; and Meredith Berthelson, a Blackfeet and UM graduate student who formerly was a math instructor at Blackfeet Community College.