U of A Biologist Receives Grant to Improve Biofuel Production

Ruben Michael Ceballos
Photo by Russell Cothren

Ruben Michael Ceballos

FAYETTEVILLE, Ark. – A University of Arkansas biologist is developing methods that could make the production of biofuel — ethanol and diesel made from sources such as plant material — more efficient and environmentally sound. Ruben Michael Ceballos will use a protein derived from microorganisms that live in acidic geothermal pools and springs to enhance the process of turning organic material into fuel.

Ceballos, an assistant professor in the Department of Biological Sciences, recently received a four-year, $800,000 grant from the National Science Foundation for the research, which seeks to create a way to protect and enhance enzymes during the conversion process.

Most biofuel is produced using chemical catalysts, which creates issues of handling hazardous chemicals and managing hazardous waste. The use of enzymes, which are biological catalysts, is considered more environmentally sustainable, though it is often less efficient. Ceballos’ goal is to create a system that can enhance enzymatic efficiency in the high temperature and extreme pH conditions involved in the manufacturing of biofuels.

To do that, he is working with a protein derived from archaea, which are single-cell organisms that can exist in extreme environments including geothermal springs and pools.

“They basically live in boiling battery acid,” said Ceballos. “There are tools in nature that we can use in industries where enzyme-mediated reactions occur under harsh reaction conditions.”

Two other U of A researchers are involved in the project: Lauren Greenlee, an assistant professor of chemical engineering, who will help develop enzyme-recovery mechanisms; and Leandro Mozzoni, associate professor in crop, soil, and environmental sciences, who will help develop soy bean and rice straw biomass to test reactions important in biofuels production.

“After working on the proof-of-concept for this biotechnology for the past several years, it is great to see that other scientists at the national level understand the value of this work,” said Ceballos. “We look forward to investigating and developing the system further so that it may be commercialized and offer significant enhancements to the biofuels sector, or any other industry where enzyme-mediated reactions under harsh conditions are essential for production processes.”

As part of the outreach portion of the NSF grant, Ceballos and several of his graduate students will help establish a science curriculum at the newly opened Ozark Catholic Academy in Tontitown. Though not directly related to the research, the outreach could create a source of future U of A students and scientists, Ceballos said.

About the J. William Fulbright College of Arts and Sciences: Fulbright College is the largest and most academically diverse unit on campus with 19 departments and more than 30 academic programs and research centers. The college provides the core curriculum for all University of Arkansas students and is named for J. William Fulbright, former university president and longtime U.S. senator. 

About the University of Arkansas: The University of Arkansas provides an internationally competitive education for undergraduate and graduate students in more than 200 academic programs. The university contributes new knowledge, economic development, basic and applied research, and creative activity while also providing service to academic and professional disciplines. The Carnegie Foundation classifies the University of Arkansas among only 2 percent of universities in America that have the highest level of research activity. U.S. News & World Report ranks the University of Arkansas among its top American public research universities. Founded in 1871, the University of Arkansas comprises 10 colleges and schools and maintains a low student-to-faculty ratio that promotes personal attention and close mentoring.

Contacts

Ruben Michael Ceballos, Assistant Professor
Department of Biological Sciences
479-575-5643, ceballos@uark.edu

Bob Whitby, feature writer
University Relations
479-575-4737, whitby@uark.edu

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