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Army Research Lab Collaboration Lends Hand to Economical Waste-to-Energy Production

ARL Texas collab

Military bases located in remote areas may one day be able to efficiently turn food waste into energy thanks to a collaborative research effort between scientists at the U.S. Army Research Laboratory (ARL) and the University of Texas at Tyler.

The collaboration, made possible by ARL's Open Campus initiative, specifically focuses on the bacterium known as Clostridium acetobutylicum, which has the ability to convert substances found in food waste to commodity chemicals including butanol, which is useful for fuel cells to produce energy.

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"Forward operating bases [FOBs] are remote and often hastily constructed without much infrastructure, making waste disposal a significant burden. It is also a significant logistical and financial challenge to transport fuel for vehicles to these FOBs," said Dr. Joshua Banta, assistant biology professor at UT-Tyler, who has been working on this project with ARL researchers since 2014.

The research project seeks to take that burden and financial challenge, and turn them into a successful and resourceful end product.

The Japanese used this process to make airplane fuel during World War II when their access to petroleum was cut off. However, according to Banta and ARL researchers, there is more progress to be made for the fuel to be created in abundance and in a cost-effective manner for use by remote military bases.

"The trick is to make the process more efficient so that it is less costly for FOBs than the status quo. We are studying the genetics of this bacterium to understand exactly how it makes butanol out of different substances so that in the future it will be possible to create 'super strains' of this species that produce large amounts of butanol from diverse components of food waste, which can then be manufactured into living 'fuel cells,'" Banta said.

In addition, and just as significant, is the fact that the butanol created would not require any vehicle modifications before use.

Banta is working on this project with his colleagues at UT-Tyler, Dr. Kate Hertweck and Dr. Riqing Yu, as well as ARL researchers, including Dr. Christian Sund, who works in the lab's Bio-Technology Branch.

Part of the Branch's research has involved understanding how Clostridium acetobutylicum breaks down components of food waste and how this process can be manipulated to produce value-added chemicals.

Sund said that the work really expands production, as it will allow ARL researchers to explore the production of an array of molecules in a metabolically diverse organism.

"The goal is to build and mine genomic datasets that capture the natural genetic variability of organisms that are good at consuming food waste. Using appropriate statistical analysis and wet lab experimentation, we can learn which genetic changes are important for particular properties of the organisms, in this case, production of butanol," Sund said.

The information can then be used to either engineer organisms with improved properties or identify better naturally occurring candidates.

"The database can be mined to learn how to convert food waste to a wide variety of useful products beyond butanol. These could benefit the warfighter through reduction of logistical loads via waste reduction and enabling some important aspects of expeditionary manufacturing of supplies," Sund said.

Sund added that the opportunity to work with Banta and his colleagues is one that will benefit research projects at both organizations, and one that would not have been possible without the Open Campus initiative.

"I most likely would not have crossed paths with Dr. Banta if not for Open Campus. His knowledge and expertise have enhanced our work with food waste degradation and will give insight into studies not available through in-house research," Sund said.

Banta said that while he has been involved in collaborations with other researchers at the university, he has never been involved in an initiative like Open Campus, an initiative that expounds on the research being conducted by government, industry, academia and small business.

"I see the same opportunities developing with my Open Campus work, where my lab and others can bring novel perspectives and expertise to ARL and vice versa, resulting in a synergistic relationship that uncovers more about the natural world than any of us would have been able to uncover on our own and that none of us would have thought to do on our own," Banta said.

Banta noted that the opportunity to form diverse collaborations with people whom he never thought of working with before—and thereby broadening his thinking about scientific questions—is one of the major benefits of the Open Campus initiative.

"There's a synergy that comes from combining personnel working in an academic setting with personnel working in a more applied, end goals-oriented setting such as ARL. The pairing together of 'strange bedfellows' like me and Army researchers is, for me, the most valuable aspect of the Open Campus initiative, and I hope these sorts of creative pairings will continue as part of the initiative," Banta said.

Banta will continue his work with ARL on this project as well as other projects that he and the lab have common interests in, growing and branching out in unanticipated directions, benefiting both organizations.

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