Energy and Carbon Optimized Synthesis for the Bioeconomy

ARPA-E'S ECOSynBio Program Graphic

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Program Description:

The ECOSynBio program aims to promote the use of advanced synthetic biology tools to engineer novel biomass conversion platforms and systems. These systems will be designed to use external energy inputs to substantially increase carbon use, versatility, and efficiency while achieving economies of scale for industrial applications. Successful platforms will offer new capacities for the bioeconomy by enabling fully carbon-optimized renewable fuel and chemical synthesis with maximum carbon and resource efficiency.Proposed systems of interest include, among others: (1) carbon-optimized fermentation strains that avoid CO2 waste, (2) engineered organisms that can use a mix of different sources of energy and carbon, and avoid evolving CO2, (3) biomass-derived sugar or carbon oxide gas fermentation with internal CO2 recycling, (4) cell-free carbon-optimized biocatalytic biomass conversion and/or CO2 use, (5) cross-cutting carbon-optimized bioconversion methods not otherwise described but having the potential for high-impact emissions reductions. All systems will need to be engineered to accommodate external reducing equivalents to optimize the carbon flux and overall system carbon efficiency relative to traditional fermentation or other bioconversion pathways (i.e., the sum of the recoverable energy products should be greater than the energy content of the primary carbon feedstock). Applicants are encouraged to use external reducing equivalent sources that can be produced electrocatalytically using H2O, CO2, or both.

Innovation Need:

A robust and sustainable bioeconomy can only be realized through the industrial-scale, carbon-neutral synthesis of fuels, chemicals, and materials.  Ethanol biofuel, along with a growing number of other plant-based products, are made almost exclusively via fermentation, the age-old technology that can also produce wine, beer, and cheese. Current methods for ethanol production can waste more than a third of the carbon in the feedstock as carbon dioxide in the fermentation step alone.  This waste adds greenhouse gas emissions, limits product yields, and squanders valuable carbon feedstock.  Preventing the loss of carbon as CO2 during bioconversion, or potentially incorporating external CO2 into bioconversions, would revolutionize bioprocessing: the yield per unit input would increase greater than 50%. 

Potential Impact:

The sustainable use of renewable biomass for energy, intermediate, and final products---i.e., the “bioeconomy”—provides economic, environmental, social, and national security benefits and offers a promising means of carbon management.


If successful, the new technologies are expected to catalyze new conversion platforms for biofuels and other high-volume bioproducts that are capable of promoting U.S. energy security by increasing recoverable product from the same mass of feedstock through the avoidance of wasting carbon in the form of CO2. 


This program will fund cutting-edge technologies to de-risk the engineering of carbon optimized bioconversion pathways that prevent the production of CO2. For example, more than a third of feedstock is wasted as CO2 in SOA conversions of sugar to ethanol.


The U.S. has the potential to sustainably generate 1 billion tons of biomass without impacting food production, producing up to 50 billion gallons of fuel each year. The technologies funded by this program have the potential to increase this fuel output to 75 billion gallons without requiring another square inch of land or kilogram of feedstock, while catalyzing the next generation of carbon optimized bio-based manufacturing.


Program Director:
Dr. David Babson
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Project Listing

University of Minnesota - Cell-free Bioelectrocatalytic Platform for Carbon Dioxide Reduction