Cell-free Bioelectrocatalytic Platform for Carbon Dioxide Reduction

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Minneapolis, Minnesota
Project Term:
08/06/2021 - 08/05/2023

Critical Need:

A robust and sustainable bioeconomy can only be realized through the industrial-scale, carbon-neutral synthesis of fuels, chemicals, and materials. Biofuels, along with a growing number of other sustainable products, are made almost exclusively via fermentation, the age-old technology used to produce foods such as wine, beer, and cheese. Current commercial methods to produce ethanol biofuel from sugar or starches waste more than 30% of the carbon in the feedstock as carbon dioxide (CO2) in the fermentation step alone. This waste limits product yields and squanders valuable feedstock carbon as greenhouse gas CO2. Preventing the loss of carbon as CO2 during bioconversion, or directly incorporating external CO2 as a feedstock into bioconversions, would revolutionize bioprocessing by increasing the product yield per unit of carbon input by more than 50%.

Project Innovation + Advantages:

The University of Minnesota will design a cell-free biocatalytic system that will reduce CO2 efficiently into formate, an important feedstock for chemicals and fuels, with energy supplied from electricity. Renewable electricity is now competitive with and in many instances less expensive than fossil fuel-derived electricity, but its storage remains challenging. Energy storage in chemical bonds through electricity-driven carbon reduction offers higher energy densities and greater safety and transportability than batteries. The efficient electrochemical reduction of kinetically and thermodynamically stable CO2 into a range of chemicals requires significant innovation. If successful, the University of Minnesota will deliver two major products for commercialization: (1) a portable CO2 capture technology and (2) formate as stand-alone chemical or for conversion in value-added compounds.

Potential Impact:

The application of biology to sustainable uses of waste carbon resources for the generation of energy, intermediates, and final products---i.e., supplanting 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 funds cutting-edge technologies to de-risk the engineering of carbon optimized bioconversion pathways capable of generating valuable bioproducts such as sustainable aviation fuel without emission of CO2 as a waste product.


The technologies funded by this program can increase the potential bioproduct output by more than 40% without requiring another square inch of land or pound of feedstock, while catalyzing the next generation of carbon optimized bio-based manufacturing.


ARPA-E Program Director:
Dr. Steven Singer
Project Contact:
Dr. Claudia Schmidt-Dannert
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