UT-ORNL team hopes to ease path from vegetation to biofuel

By University of Tennessee | September 27, 2016

A University of Tennessee and Oak Ridge National Laboratory team led by governor’s chair Jeremy Smith, is using supercomputing to figure out ways to ease the path of turning vegetation into biofuel.

A huge barrier in converting plant polymers to biofuel lies in removing other biomass polymers that subvert this chemical process. To overcome this hurdle, large-scale computational simulations are picking apart lignin, one of those inhibiting polymers, and its interactions with cellulose and other plant components. The results point toward ways to optimize biofuel production and are helping researchers understand the complex chemistry of plant cell walls.

Smith is leading the charge. He is the UT governor’s chair for molecular biophysics based in the Department of Biochemistry and Cellular and Molecular Biology. He also is director of the UT-ORNL Center for Molecular Biophysics.

Researchers at the UT-ORNL Center for Molecular Biophysics have long used supercomputers to model and study lignin polymers and their interactions with cellulose. More recently they’ve started to include other biomass polymers with the idea of simulating all the chemical components of plant cell walls. They’re now applying simulations again to the task: a hundred-million processor hours on Titan, ORNL’s Cray XK7 supercomputer.

Read more about the project on the US Department of Energy’s website.