Research for a green future awarded with grants

Two researchers at BIO, Johan Larsbrink and Nikolaos Xafenias, received Formas’ start-up grants for future research leaders. And Johan Larsbrink really got a full house, as he received the corresponding grant from the Swedish Research Council as well.

​Research to take further steps towards a fossil-free society. That is the basis for the applications that awarded Nikolaos Xafenias and Johan Larsbrink – both from the Division of Industrial Biotechnology – grants from Formas, each worth one million SEK per year for three years.
– This means I can lead my own research line within the division, Nikolaos Xafenias explains.

Xafenias’ project involves converting waste and by-products from bioprocesses, to "green" products. Some background: Biorefineries, in which fuels and other chemicals are produced from biomass instead of crude oil, are a great way of moving production away from using fossil raw materials. But for biorefineries to succeed – and be truly environmentally friendly – we need to exploit the vast amounts of carbon dioxide and other carbonaceous residues that are co-produced.

Nikolaos Xafenias wants to develop a technology to recycle this carbon, thus reducing the environmental impact. To do this, microbes that "eat" electricity from electrodes will be used. The microbes will be catalysts for the electrochemical conversions of waste products into alcohols, which are of value to the chemical and energy industries.
– This money will, among other things, support collaboration with other groups, Nikolaos Xafenias says.
– I have really competent partners: Jie Sun, Associate Professor at Chalmers Department MC2, who is working with graphene, and Professor Ieropoulos at the Bristol Robotics Laboratory, who is working with bioelectrochemical systems.

Johan Larsbrink will take a closer look at enzymes for efficient decomposition of biomass. So-called enzymatic hydrolysis – a chemical process in which enzymes cleave the major components of the biomass into small molecules – is the most viable option for the decomposition of forest and agricultural residues for conversion to biofuels. But it’s also one of the most costly steps in today’s processes. Enzymes with several so-called catalytic domains may make the process much more efficient, but they are rare. Johan Larsbrink wants to determine the potential of these existing enzymes, and also develop entirely new ones.

But Johan Larsbrink did not only receive money from Formas. He also got a start-up grant from the Swedish Research Council, for 3,2 million SEK over a four year period.
– It feels a bit strange, it hasn’t completely sunk in yet. But it’s really great, of course, he says.
The Swedish Research Council is investing in his project to develop and make the bioprocess that converts biomass into fuels more efficient. In recent years, much effort has been put into creating consolidated bioprocesses, where one microorganism can simultaneously break down biomass, absorb the energy and also produce valuable substances. Most studies have been done on E. coli bacteria and yeast, but the results have not been good enough. Johan Larsbrink has instead chosen to look at other bacterial species, to create organisms with the perfect properties.
– The money from both Formas and the Swedish Research Council will go to two new positions in my group. I already have two post docs, and good international and Swedish research connections that I will continue to work with, Johan Larsbrink says.

In order to get the grants, the research projects need to meet certain criteria. They are measured not only by the scientific level – scientific issue, expertise and methodology – but also on the potential use for society.
– The fact that we received the grants not only shows that we as researchers are considered qualified, but also that our projects are considered promising and interesting, Nikolaos Xafenias says, and Johan Larsbrink adds:
– Our projects are in the bioenergy area. It’s a “hot” field right now, and very important from society’s standpoint. Furthermore, it is also important to show that you have good collaborations. Research is becoming increasingly interdisciplinary – it’s no longer possible to work in your own bubble.

Text: Mia Malmstedt
Photo: Martina Butorac

Published: Tue 20 Dec 2016.