Chemical and Biological Engineering (ChBE) Associate Professor and Patten Fellow Ryan Gill and his team have been awarded $9.2 million from the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) for research aimed at engineering E. coli to produce biofuels such as ethylene and isobutanol.
"This is a fantastic opportunity to take what we have worked on for the past decade to the next level and develop technologies that are orders of magnitude beyond where we are currently," says Gill, who is also a fellow of CU-Boulder's Renewable and Sustainable Energy Institute, or RASEI.
The team is working with a non-pathogenic strain of E. coli. Among the microbe's more than 4,000 genes, the team is searching for a small set and how it can be manipulated in a combination of on and off states to change the bacteria's behavior.
"E. coli is not going to want to make your biofuel at all," says Gill. "It doesn't do that naturally. It's programmed with thousands of genes controlling how it replicates. We're figuring out what control structure we need to rewire in the bug to make it do what we want, not what it wants."
The task will not be easy. According to Gill, "The first step alone - of pinpointing the part of the E. coli genome that can help us make biofuels or other chemicals on a cost-competitive basis - is a daunting challenge."
Since joining the department in 2001, Gill has won numerous awards and his research has spawned the successful company OPX Biotechnologies, Inc. His efforts in the fields of metabolic engineering, synthetic biology, directed evolution, and genomics have been targeted towards the development of biorefining processes for the sustainable production of fuels, commodity chemicals, and pharmaceuticals.
Graduate students, alumni, and industry professionals are invited to hear Gill present "Reading, Writing, and Optimizing Genomes for Biofuels and Bio-refining" at the upcoming ChBE Research Symposium: Focus on Energy on March 7 in the Jennie Smoly Caruthers Biotechnology Building on East Campus.
Bart Carpenter is a 1981 CU chemical engineering graduate who started his career at Conoco's engineering center in Ponca City, OK. He spent the next 30 years supporting the company's downstream operations in a variety of technical and managerial positions around the country. Bart more recently returned to Colorado and joined Merrick & Company as a Senior Technical Specialist, where he supports oil and gas and industrial biotechnology projects. Bart also directs The Merrick Consultancy, a team of world-class energy experts that help clients solve difficult challenges commercializing new green technologies. Since his return to the Denver area, Bart has volunteered his time as an Undergraduate Education Advisory Council member and guest speaker in various ChBE classes. He enjoys cheering on the Buffs and sharing a beer at The Sink with fellow CU alumni.
We recently caught up with Bart to learn more about his CU and work experiences:
What was the most helpful technical information you learned at CU?
I can't really put my finger on anything specific other than engineering school teaches you how to solve problems and pay attention to the details. I really enjoyed the senior design class as it pulled it all together and gave us a chance to apply what we learned in many of our chemical engineering classes. I don't miss the card reader for the computer programs that we had to write, especially when the machine "ate" your cards a few minutes before midnight and you had to start all over. The students today don't know how good they have it!
What was the most helpful life experience you gained during your career?
Never underestimate the value of good, and I mean really good, people skills. I've met maybe two engineers over 30 years that were technically incompetent. Most engineers fail to reach their potential because they don't pay enough attention to their soft skills. I've worked with some brilliant engineers that limited their careers because they thought being technically smarter than everyone else was all that mattered. The real world doesn't work that way. Take time to work on your personal skills and solicit feedback from others every chance you get. I didn't always like the feedback I received but it made me a better engineer.
Can you describe one of your favorite projects?
I still really enjoy going into a refinery and evaluating the entire plant for profit improvement opportunities. Modern petroleum refineries are very large machines, circa 300,000 barrels per day, that are very complex and highly integrated. Even after all these years, there are still great opportunities to significantly reduce energy consumption and improve yields. The last one of these I worked on identified over $50 million/year in improvements ... now that's a lot of fun!
How can we interface proteins with polymers to better deliver drugs to diseased tissues? Can protein properties be rationally altered to produce valuable compounds such as biofuels? How can we better detect enzymes involved in, and thereby target and combat, diseases?
"Answers to these questions lie in understanding the fundamental link between protein structure, activity, and molecular environment," says ChBE Assistant Professor Joel Kaar. "Ultimately, this understanding is a requisite for designing rational strategies for incorporating proteins into materials and, more broadly, using proteins in new ways."
Kaar's research program at CU melds biocatalysis and biomaterial synthesis with structural biology and biophysics, all with an aim of developing novel functional materials.
In collaboration with Professor and Chair Dan Schwartz, Kaar is combining protein engineering and advanced biophysical techniques to study proteins at material interfaces. This unique research earned Kaar a 2012 Army Research Office Young Investigator Award.
"Our approach will enable individual protein molecules to be observed, thereby providing unprecedented molecular detail of the conformation, folding state, and function of proteins in near-surface environments," explains Kaar. "We hope to ultimately provide the framework to understand how to rationally synthesize protein-containing structures with novel and sophisticated functions, including the ability to catalyze transformations, resist fouling, adapt to environmental stresses, and interact favorably with cells."
Kaar is also investigating the use of enzymes in ionic liquids (ILs) to convert biomass to precursor materials that can be further processed into biofuels. While ILs are environmentally attractive, enzyme inactivation traditionally has been an issue. By studying the impact of ILs on enzyme structure and dynamics at the molecular level, Kaar's group hopes to find hospitable conditions that do not adversely affect the enzyme folding states or active site plasticity. Their goal is to dramatically improve the widespread commercialization of biofuels as a sustainable fuel alternative.
An exciting new field into which Kaar hopes to embark in the future is the detection using liquid crystal platforms of enzymes that are involved in diseases. "If these enzymes can be detected, we can use these platforms to either develop new drugs or screen small-molecule libraries to find existing drugs that target these proteins," Kaar explains.
Prof. Kaar's enthusiasm for his research is equaled by his passion for teaching courses such as Applied Data Analysis and Pharmaceutical Biotechnology.
Senior Korben Knudson attests, "Joel Kaar is one of the nicest and most approachable professors I've had. His brilliance and passion for his job are present on a daily basis and it is clear that he enjoys what he does."
As further evidence of his popularity with CU students, Kaar was invited to be the honorary coach for the CU women's basketball game against Arizona State on Jan 18. The invitation was extended for his team recruiting efforts.
Between his outstanding research and enthusiastic attitude, Joel Kaar has been a welcome addition to ChBE. Read the full article or visit his research page to learn more about his work.
The result of a unique partnership between CU alum Pete Balsells, the University of Colorado Boulder, and the government of Catalonia, Spain, the Balsells Graduate Fellowship Program brings outstanding students from Catalonia to Boulder to pursue master's and doctoral degrees. The program funds the students' education and has enriched both our department and the college community. The Department of Chemical and Biological Engineering is fortunate to currently host three Balsells Fellows, all of whom hail from near Barcelona. Josep Casamada Ribot is studying plasmonic biosensing under the direction of Prashant Nagpal and Anushree Chatterjee; Núria Codina Castillo is studying bioactive sutures for preventing fibrosis in injured skeletal muscle tissue under the direction of Joel Kaar; and Marc Vera Canudas is studying microfabrication and nanofabrication under the direction of Mark Stoykovich.
Here's a bit of what these three outstanding students had to say about their experiences at CU:
How is academic life different at CU than in Catalonia?
Núria: One big difference is the level of involvement with the university. In Catalonia, going to school is more like a job, whereas here students stay on campus more and are definitely more involved in university activities.
Marc: People here are proud of the university, wearing CU clothing and supporting sports teams. In Catalonia, the top-tier athletes do not play in college but rather go straight to professional teams, so college sports are much less competitive.
N: Another big difference here is student-faculty interactions. At CU people ask questions in class; this is not done in Catalonia.
M: It did take time to get used to students asking the professor to explain confusing concepts in class. In general, the relationship here between professor and student is a bit more personal.
Josep: We have not used clickers before; I felt like I was on a TV game show when I used one for the first time here. We also do not have TAs in Spain, and are not encouraged to go to professors' office hours. Finally, in Catalonia, almost all of a course's grade rests on the final exam; perhaps there will be one project or a short midterm, but not weekly homework. Here there is a more continuous workload, with homework every week and long midterms.
M: Yes, the final is often worth around 80 percent of the final grade in Catalonia.
N: So while we have less pressure at the end of the semester here, it also means there is more work for the class.
What do you like most about ChBE?
N: The department is very organized; Dom (ChBE's graduate advisor) has been an invaluable help with everything. I also like that we are given the opportunities to meet multiple professors before picking an advisor.
M: Yes, and I like the enthusiasm of the professors; they explain their expectations and show a lot of passion for what they do.
J: The department has opportunities in many different areas, from more classical chemical engineering to bio to energy. There are also many multidisciplinary interactions, which I greatly enjoy.
M: Because of this I feel like I like I am linked to others and from that I gain a broader understanding.
N: I like that I didn't have to do research the first semester and so could focus on my classes.
M: The seminars have also been a great means to learn about other research areas.
Let us know what you've been up to! Send us an alumni update using our online form.
Warren L. Dowler (ChemEngr '52) is retired and at "82+" years old, reports that he's feeling great and is still working on several projects. Following a career developing technologies for the military and NASA at the Cal Tech Jet Propulsion Laboratory and Stanford Research Institute Calaveras Test Site, Warren is now consulting part-time on solid propellant rocket motor technology. Warren splits his time between Pahrump, Nevada, and Brookings, Oregon.
Glenn Selch (ChemEngr '56) remains active as a manufacturer's agent and consultant. He is the owner of Selch Process Systems, based in Erie, Colorado.
Prof. Chris Bowman and his group received new NIH and tech transfer grants to work on artificial nucleic acids.
ChBE faculty received $400K from the Department of Education for new Graduate Assistance in Areas of National Need (GAANN) on the topic of Renewable and Sustainable Energy. Leading the ChBE efforts were Al Weimer and Chris Bowman.
Prof. Steve George was elected President-Elect of the American Vacuum Society for 2013. He also received a new DARPA contract titled "Stepwise Sequence of Surface Reactions for Diamond and GaN Growth."
Saikripa Radhakrishnan was the recipient of the Genentech Outstanding Student Award.
Several ChBE students took prizes at the Fall 2012 AIChE National Conference in Pittsburgh:
Torrie Aston took first in the Chemical Reaction Engineering Division Graduate Student Poster Competition for "Novel Ferrite Materials for Efficient H2 Production and CO2 Separation Using Chemical Looping Hydrogen Production."
Junior Kayla Weston won first place in Fuels, Petrochemicals and Energy for "A Comparison of Two-step Concentrated Solar-thermal Water Splitting Materials."
Aaron Palumbo won second in Sustainability and Sustainable Biorefineries for "Co-utilization of Methane in Steam-biomass Gasification using Concentrated Solar Energy."
Staci VanNorman won third prize in the Particle Technology Forum for "Thin Film, Big Difference - Atomic Layer Deposition Functionalized Oxide and Polymer Particles."