Han receives $2 million NSF grant to develop microalgae-based biofuel

Photo of Dr. Arun HanDr. Arum Han, associate professor in the Department of Electrical and Computer Engineering at Texas A&M University, received a $2 million award from the National Science Foundation’s (NSF) Emerging Frontiers in Research and Innovation (EFRI) office to lead a multidisciplinary team of investigators for developing technologies for next-generation microalgae-based biofuel.

Collaborators include Dr. Tim Devarenne from the Department of Biochemistry and Biophysics at Texas A&M, Dr. David Stern from the Boyce Thompson Institute for Plant Research, Dr. Jefferson Tester from Cornell University and Dr. Tzachi Samocha from Texas A&M-Corpus Christi. The team received the award for their proposal, “Microalgae Lab-on-Chip Photobioreactor Platform for Genetic Screening and Metabolic Analysis Leading to Scalable Biofuel Production,” under the photosynthetic biorefinary topic.

In his proposal Han says microfluidic lab-on-chip devices have the capability to precisely manipulate many samples in parallel down to single cell resolution, and integrate various functionalities into a single, user-friendly platform, all in a high-throughput manner. Application of these devices to photosynthetic microorganisms such as microalgae could rapidly reveal critical information needed for improving the production of transportation grade hydrocarbons.

Their proposed strategy is to transfer the valuable hydrocarbon synthesis pathway of the slow-growing alga Botryococcus braunii to to faster-growing algae with commercial potential. B. braunii hydrocarbons are of particular value because they can be readily converted into petroleum-equivalent fuels.

This strategy will be achieved by developing microfluidic lab-on-chip devices that permit high-throughput screening and analyses of algal growth and oil production; modifying the faster-growing algae Chlamydomonas reinhardtii and Chlorella so that they produce the hydrocarbons normally found in B. braunii; rapidly screening through large numbers of C. reinhardtii genetic variants to select the highest performing cells; performing scaled-up growth of the best performers; and performing life-cycle assessment, which will provide guidance for optimization of economically and environmentally sustainable production.


(Pictured right, an image of oil squeezing out from microalga)

Han says the proposed research will have broad scientific impactbecause the microfluidic platforms will accelerate research and development across the broad area of biofuel and biomolecule production in a range of microbes as well as training the next generation of microbial bioenergy engineers and scientists.

Han, director of the NanoBio Systems Lab and an expert in microfluidic lab-on-a-chip technologies, joined the bio­ area of the electrical and computer engineering de­partment in August 2005. He received his bachelor’s degree from the Seoul Na­tional University in 1997 and his master’s degree from the University of Cincinnati in 2000. In August 2005, he received his Ph.D. in electrical engineering from the Georgia Institute of Technology. 

Han’s research interests lie in the devel­opment of microfluidic and lab-on-a-chip systems for applications in cellular and molecular analysis. Particular focus areas are in developing high-throughput screening systems and portable detection systems for applications in developmental neurobiology, cancer metastasis, infectious diseases and microbe-mediated bioenergy solutions.

The Office of Emerging Frontiers in Research and Innovation (EFRI) has been established as a result of strategic planning and reorganization of the NSF Engineering Directorate (ENG). Motivated by the vision of ENG to be the global leader in advancing the frontiers of fundamental engineering research, EFRI serves a critical role in helping ENG focus on important emerging areas in a timely manner. More information about EFRI grants is available online.