Finding a way to convert the most abundantly available raw material on Earth is the key factor to make bacteria produce sustainable jet fuel. This is my challenge in my PhD research, which makes it very interesting and important.
Our lifestyle is changing at a greater pace than ever. We require a lot more material to sustain our lives. We need more complex tools such as smart phones, whose components are extracted and processed in different parts of the world involving a large number of labor. We travel across the oceans to fulfill professional responsibilities or just to enjoy ourselves in a warmer climate. We transport goods and services to keep up with our ever-growing needs and desires. We eventually need a diversity of solutions to sustain such a variety of actions. I got my share in this sophisticated yet exciting challenge and started by learning the language of bacteria.
Indian sugar for Norwegian bacteria
My PhD topic lies in finding a way of producing jet fuel from lignocellulosic biomass, which is the most abundantly available raw material on the Earth by harnessing the power of bacteria. We first need to convert the raw material into something that the bacteria can eat happily and produce necessary chemicals. Our partners in India convert the biomass into bacteria food, which is mainly sugars by enzymatic hydrolysis. Then, we take the sugars and feed the bacteria here in Norway. They ferment the sugars into acids and alcohols, which are their inhibitory metabolites, but also the building blocks of our final product.
Bacteria are much like human beings
Bacteria are like human beings; they like some food better, and some food is more nutritious for them, while some food is bad for their health. Therefore, understanding their needs is very important for us. They also don’t like to sit in their metabolites in the same way as humans. Therefore, we try to remove as much metabolites as possible from their home, fermentation broth to help them to thrive. Finally, we mix acids and alcohols to create a reaction to produce ester (enzymatic esterification). Voilà! We have the sustainable jet fuel produced from the renewable feedstock, lignocellulosic biomass.
We employ several novel technologies for understanding/monitoring/modeling and improving/optimizing their growth, consequently the production of the jet fuel. Microreactor fermentation, membrane electrodialysis (dialysis where the movement of ions are helped by an electric field), and Raman spectroscopy (spectroscopic technique used to observe vibrational, rotational, and other low-frequency modes in a system) are some of the methods we use. The topic itself is very interesting and exciting, and taking part in all the stages of process design, experimental verification and modeling is very rewarding and fulfilling as well.
In addition, it is an India-Norway collaboration project between Jadavpur University, NTNU and SINTEF. I already went to India for a research visit and they came to Norway. We are planning some more exchanges and joint events. It is definitely a unique experience both socially and professionally, and I feel lucky to have this opportunity during my PhD.
Cansu Birgen is a PhD candidate at the Department of Chemical Engineering