This month a number of Bio4Energy researchers received grants to carry out projects expected to contribute to excellence in science or for having rapidly put in place part of a research environment intended to produce such projects.
“It feels great. It’s an acknowledgement of our energy-related research which we worked [to develop] for many years and a reward for all the work which has gone into doing that”, Öhman, who is a professor at the LTU, said in an e-mail.
He added that he had not yet decided what to do with the SEK100,000 awarded to him.
New ways to convert biomass using enzymes
Simply put, if biomass is to be used as a base for fuels and other products a conversion needs to take place before it can be turned into biofuels or other bio-based products. In the project OTIBIOCAT or, ‘Optimised esterase biocatalysts for cost-effective industrial production’, Christakopoulos and partners will be spending four years developing “competitive and eco-friendly bioconversions based on esterfication reactions catalysed by novel biomass degrading enzymes… for production of molecules with antioxidant activity”.
This type of molecule could then be used as an antioxidant agent in the cosmetic or pharmacological industry, both of which use phenolic fatty esters or sugar esters for this purpose, Christakopoulos said in an e-mail.
Water purification using nanocellulose
Mathew, who is an associate professor at the LTU, would be using her newly won funds for contributing fundamental research to an EU project on using nanocellulose applications in water purification, NanoSelect.
"There is no standard atomic force microscopy technique for looking at adsorption for nanocellulose. We want to understand more about the mechanisms and develop techniques… We have a model system. Now we want to develop characterisation techniques”.
She added that this basic knowledge would help researchers assess the efficiency of the removal of contaminants from water and which contaminants might be captured using nanocellulose-based technology. The techniques would also be applicable in other research areas, such as the evaluation of biomedical applications drawing on nanocellulose techniques.
The research project sponsored by the Swedish Research Council is set to run for four years and is called ‘Modeling and advanced microscopy/spectroscopy to evaluate and predict the surface interactions of nanocellulose and nanochitin with water pollutants’.
Assessing impacts of fuel exhaust or air pollution on exhaled breath
Schmidt, of Umeå University (UmU) and of the team of B4E researchers at the UmU 'TEC-Lab', won the largest grant—of nearly SEK4 million to spend over four years—to develop a non-invasive method for assessing the impact of gaseous substances noxious to human health, such as air pollutants, on people fraught with pulmonary or cardiovascular disease.
Traditionally, mass spectrometry has been used to perform this kind of breath analysis. Schmidt, however, who is specialising in laser spectroscopy for gas analysis, said he believed this method could produce more accurate measurements in real time.
“Laser spectroscopy focuses on few compounds [at the time] but may be used to measure more accurately or faster”, he said.
In terms of practical applications, Schmidt said that his intention was to develop technology that could be used directly by doctors in assessing the severity of pulmonary afflictions such as chronic obstructive lung disease. If successful, his team's fundamental research could save the medical profession—and drug makers—money by ascertaining that large clinical studies were well founded and patients suffering by ensuring that any treatment was targeted not only to a particular type of disease, but also to the stage of that disease.
“I think we will be able to give a more accurate distinction between different states of diseases… It is important though to investigate [both the methods and patients thoroughly] before moving to clinical application”, Schmidt said.
In a best-case scenario, the researchers could have the technology ready to support large-scale clinical trials in four-to-five years’ time, he added. His project is called ‘Quantum cascade laser system for real-time measurements of 12CO and 13CO carbon monoxide isotopoloques in exhaled breath’.
Studying the root of a model plant to understand how to make rapid-growth trees
During their four-year project, Tuominen and Prestele, who are also affiliated with UmU, aim to create a model system for this type of “programmed” cell death and, subsequently, tools which will allow feedstock researchers to modify the process of cell death in plants. One reason for inducing such a modification could be to increase the production of biomass in trees grown for use in biorefinery process or bioenergy production.
In the abstract to their project, ‘Developmental cell death in the Arabidopsis root’, Tuominen and Prestele say that, “in some cases… one may want to prolong or shorten the lifetime of the cells. In wood we know that a prolongation of the cells’ life span… leads to [the trees taking on] desirable characteristics. But if the purpose is to give the roots increased access to nutrition or capacity for water transportation, it is desirable to develop a large root mass by shortening the lifetime of cells which block the branching of the roots.
“Our goal in this project is to abide by these principles to produce genetically modified aspen trees with a better capacity for biomass production”.