Public Release: 5-Jan-2016
NREL’s Min Zhang keeps her ‘bugs’ happy, leading to biofuel breakthroughs
DOE/National Renewable Energy Laboratory
National Renewable Energy Laboratory (NREL) Senior Scientist Min Zhang has a special relationship with Zymomonas mobilis, a rod-shaped bacterium that has bioethanol-producing capabilities. Of her 80 peer-reviewed papers and 21 U.S. patents in the field of biochemistry and biofuels, many reference this sugar-eating ‘bug.’
Their fortuitous pairing began shortly after the Chinese-born U.S. citizen and biochemical engineer arrived at NREL in 1992. She came as part of a newly created team tasked by what was then the Energy Department’s National Bioethanol Program with exploring a new path for ethanol conversion for biofuels. At the time, global researchers were focusing on using yeast for alcohol production.
“That [yeast] organism was the one people had studied for years. We at NREL decided to take a different approach,” Zhang said. They chose instead the fermentative bacteria known to scientists as Zymomonas mobilis.
“We felt it could be very promising,” she said, explaining that the organism could consume glucose very fast — three times faster than yeast — as well as produce ethanol at high yield, which would potentially improve fuel production cost. By tapping that hunger, researchers could use the bacterium to speed up the process of turning the sugars (such as those derived from the long-chain cellulose and hemicellulose found in feedstock) into useable fuels and products.
As she looks to the future, Zhang is proud of where she’s been. And she’s also pleased that she’s been able to partner, so to speak, with various organisms. “Our bug is actually really happy now,” she said of her current research and familiar teammate. And that’s the way Zhang wants to keep it as she works toward new discoveries.
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