Biofuels for Sustainable Space Exploration

Grant #: NNX08AZ37A
Senior Scientist: Hiromi Kagawa

NASA’s long-term mission is to explore and ultimately colonize our solar system, along with NASA’s fundamental commitment to protect the home planet, and to benefit from current research and developments in alternative (non-fossil fuel) energy.  This R&D analyzes sustainable energy sources that will be needed for NASA’s long-term missions. Implementing a global transition from fossil fuels to more sustainable forms of energy requires the kind of science and engineering oversight that NASA can potentially provide. As “green” technologies gain momentum, the world is looking to the USA for leadership, and California—or more specifically Silicon Valley—for inspiration. NASA Ames is therefore positioned to play a role in green R&D that has the ability to impact the future of NASA and perhaps the future of the world.  In anticipation of Ames’ potential leadership role, this study intensifies and expands current Center research efforts in green technologies, with an emphasis on biofuels. 

Building on research initiated by the Global Research into Energy and the Environment at NASA (GREEN) team by mobilizing astrobiologists, microbiologists, nanotechnologists, life support engineers, and systems engineers, we formed two energy research groups (ERGs) to investigate two of the most promising current biofuel feedstocks: cellulose and algae.  These feedstocks are under investigation globally, and this study explores how Ames researchers can contribute to these research areas.  For cellulose, ERG1 addresses a major bottleneck: degradation.  Our contribution uses an innovative nanotechnology approach that involves the assembly of enzymes into arrays that we have already shown significantly increase degradation efficiency, which in turn simplifies the process of transforming cellulose into sugar— the critical step in biofuels production.  For algae, ERG2 studies the natural populations growing at the Sunnyvale Water Treatment Plant and elsewhere to determine biomass composition and lipid production rates.  In addition, the ERG2 group uses a systems approach to determine  the overall impact of algal feedstocks on local ecologies.  The processes developed by both groups are modeled at various scales to understand their impact on fuel supplies and greenhouse gases (day, night, and long term).  

Our goal is to establish that NASA Ames scientists and engineers can contribute significantly to biofuels research, which means the ERGs will be functional research teams that can conduct valuable research together, write proposals, and obtain outside funding. We internally reviewed both projects/groups at the end of FY08 to measure progress and decide how best to proceed in the research environment that exists at that time.  At the end of FY09, a second review determined the level of success of the projects and if they should be continued.  Criteria for success include: 1) the level of recognition NASA Ames receives for biofuels research, 2) the amount of outside funding secured, and 3) the enthusiasm among Ames scientists and engineers for the research.