Scientists discover new method to harness energy

A Washington State University professor is part of a team that has unraveled the mechanism of a process that couples chemical reactions in a unique way that conserves energy and prevents loss.

John Peters

The process – which maximizes the efficiency of chemical reactions at the molecular level – could affect everything from synthetic biology to fuel and chemical production.

“This lays the groundwork for making energy much more efficiently,” said John Peters, director of WSU’s Institute of Biological Chemistry. “For example, it has the potential, though it’s still very early, to extract more energy from biomass when making biofuels.”

When biomass, like wood or sugarcane, is broken down, a variety of it’s pieces are used to make biofuel. This new process has the potential to make more of those products usable, Peters said.

Their findings were recently released in the journal Nature Chemical Biology, available at http://www.nature.com/nchembio/journal/vaop/ncurrent/full/nchembio.2348.html.

“We are seeing things nobody’s ever seen before,” Peters said. “This really opens up the field of energy-related biochemistry.”

A multi-institutional team called the Biological Electron Transfer and Catalysis (BETCy) Energy Frontier Research Center wrote the paper.

In the paper, the authors characterized, for the first time, a process by which a specific enzyme can catalyze two chemical reactions simultaneously, thus allowing scientists to harness energy that would have previously been wasted as heat loss.

“These enzymes are actually very savvy,” said co-author Cara Lubner of the National Renewable Energy Laboratory (NREL). “Because they couple the reactions in such a way as to conserve energy, it is a very efficient process with little waste.”

Peters said use of the process could eventually allow materials that would normally never be considered as fuels to become viable energy sources.

“This work has ground-breaking implications,” Peters said. “This would allow you to use stuff you couldn’t normally use for energy. We could find ways to use both high-quality and low-quality feedstocks to get fuel.”

The work was done by several researchers involved with the U.S. Department of Energy-funded center around the country.

The BETCy Center is headquartered at Montana State University, and the key authors of the paper are at NREL in Golden, Colo., MSU, Arizona State University, the University of Georgia and the University of Kentucky.

Peters said the discovery wouldn’t have been possible without the collaboration between all of the authors and DOE-funded centers.

“One technique didn’t do it,” he said. “It took many different methods to unravel the mechanism to figure this out. And now that we have, this discovery will open up many possibilities in several scientific fields.”

Peters also serves as the director at BETCy, in addition to his position at WSU.

Source Contact

John Peters, WSU Institute of Biological Chemistry
509-335-3412, jw.peters@wsu.edu