Biotechnology and Biomanufacturing Seed Grants Awardees

The Biotechnology and Biomanufacturing Seed Grants program is designed to stimulate biotechnology and biomanufacturing research in several priority areas and increase competitiveness for researchers seeking extramural awards.

The following are brief descriptions of the projects (taken directly from the original proposals) selected for Biotechnology and Biomanufacturing Seed Grants in 2024. Six projects received a total of $795,392 in funding, with the award period May 1, 2024 through April 30, 2025 for one-year projects and May 1, 2024 through April 30, 2026 if funded for two years.

2024 Awardees

Biochar as a Dewatering Agent for the Permanent Impoundment of Minnesota’s Coal Combustion Residual (CCR) Program
Brian Barry, Duluth NRRI Forest Products, UMD Natural Resources Research Institute

Coal combustion residuals (CCRs) are the hazardous byproduct of electrical generation from coal-burning power plants and are collected and stored in lagoons to prevent fugitive dust. These lagoons are considered temporary storage and due to the 2015 EPA “CCR Rule,” power companies are now required to expedite the permanent impoundment of CCRs. To permanently landfill the CCRs present in storage lagoons, the surface water is first removed and the resulting wet CCR sludge is then further dried with a dewatering agent to solidify the sludge into a workable, stable consistency amenable to permanent landfilling. Fresh, dry CCR is currently used as the final dewatering agent but this practice results in hazardous fugitive dust. Power companies are anticipating that this practice will not be allowed in the near future and alternative dewatering agents are being considered. The Natural Resources Research Institute (NRRI) and Minnesota Power (MP), a local power generator, will team up to explore the potential of biochar as an alternative dewatering agent in a proof-of-concept study. Biochar is a carbon-sequestering product that can be generated from biomass waste materials and, if proven to be an effective dewatering agent, could result in stacked environmental and economic benefits for Minnesota.

Microbial Electrochemical Factories for Green Ammonia Synthesis
Daniel Bond, Plant and Microbial Biology, College of Biological Sciences (CBS)
Jeffrey Gralnick, College of Biological Sciences (CBS)

This project addresses the urgent need for an environmentally friendly alternative to the fossil fuel-based Haber-Bosch process which currently dominates ammonia production. Minnesota is moving towards use of electrolyzer-produced hydrogen to replace the natural gas typically used for ammonia synthesis. In response, we propose a novel biological solution compatible with these emerging electrochemical platforms. We will replace the energy-intensive Haber-Bosch process with a sustainable method using nitrogen-fixing bacteria that have the unique ability to fix atmospheric nitrogen into ammonia using electrodes as energy sources. The research involves genetically modifying these organisms to optimize ammonia production and developing novel ‘hydrogen recycling’ reactor designs to minimize the cost of feeding the bacteria in large-scale implementations. The project stands at the intersection of decarbonization and biofuel research, targeting a source of over 2% of world carbon emissions. By linking the power of biology with electrochemistry, this project offers a path towards local sustainable ammonia production, providing a cleaner alternative for both agriculture and transportation fuel uses.

Upcycling Food Waste and Corn Ethanol Coproducts to Produce Novel Feed
Bo Hu, Bioproducts and Biosystems Engineering, College of Food, Agricultural, and Natural Resource Sciences (CFANS)
Pedro Urriola, Animal Science, College of Food, Agricultural, and Natural Resource Sciences (CFANS)
Gerald Shurson, Animal Science, College of Food, Agricultural, and Natural Resource Sciences (CFANS)
Xiao Sun, Bioproducts & Biosystems Engineering, College of Food, Agricultural, and Natural Resource Sciences (CFANS)

Around 40% of food is wasted and cannot be made into livestock feed owing to poor bioavailability. The disposal (mostly through landfill) is expensive and unsustainable. Proper treatment and processing can transform food waste like fruit and vegetable waste into high value feeds, thereby allowing us to leverage livestock to upcycle available nutrients for human food production. Meanwhile, the corn ethanol industry has become the major feed producer as stillage coproducts (like DDGS) dominate global market in providing key animal feed ingredients. However, digestion issues emerged on the fiber, protein and phytate when DDGS served as the monogastric animal feed. The improper digestion of DDGS is a waste of resources and directly increases the nutrient discharge to the environment. We propose to develop a microbial fermentation process to convert whole stillage mixed with food waste into animal feed with higher protein content, balanced key amino acids, lower anti-nutritional factors, and better digestibility. The research will include lab fermentation studies, scaling-up and techno-economic analysis. This project will deliver a process that can be readily adopted by the corn ethanol industry to maximize their animal feed production as well as a sustainable approach for our society to handle and upcycle food waste.

A Fungal-Amended Approach to Enhance Long-Term Mineral Carbon Storage
Peter Kang, Earth Sciences, College of Science and Engineering (CSE)
Jiwei Zhang, Bioproducts & Biosystems Engineering, College of Food, Agricultural, and Natural Resource Sciences (CFANS)

The recent IPCC report underscores the urgency of achieving net-zero carbon emissions by 2050 to avert irreversible climate impacts. Recent research has identified in situ carbon mineralization and enhanced weathering as promising methods to lock free CO2 into subsurface systems. However, the feasibility of accelerating this process and its long-term viability remain largely unexplored. Our preliminary results and recent studies suggest that fungi may play a crucial role in facilitating carbon mineralization in subsurface environments. In this project, we propose a rapid and sustainable fungal-amended method for capturing CO2 and storing it in mineral forms. By utilizing a novel microfluidics platform, we will visualize and monitor, in real time, the fungi-assisted carbon mineralization processes. In addition, fungal species will be genetically encoded to enhance carbon sequestration through active biomineralization. Our goal is to enhance mineralization by harnessing and engineering fungal capabilities for overcoming clogging, increasing mineralization surface area, redistributing pore water, and promoting metal dissolution and carbonate precipitation. This project could revolutionize carbon mineralization, offering a scalable and efficient solution for carbon capture and storage. This research directly aligns with President Biden’s “Bold Goals” initiative, specifically by targeting biotechnological solutions for sustainable carbon sequestration.

Genetic Engineering of Black Soldier Fly for Sustainable Omega-3 Production
Michael Smanski, Biochemistry, Molecular Biology, and Biophysics, CBS

Organic wastes pose significant environmental challenges but also harbor valuable nutrients that are currently underutilized. The black soldier fly (Hermetia illucens, BSF) is renowned for its ability to upcycle wastes such as food scraps, spent grains, and manure into insect protein and oil, making it an enticing prospect as the “livestock of the future.” However, the insect's lipid composition is not optimal for use in most livestock or aquaculture feeds. Essential omega-3 fatty acids are added to animal feeds as fish oil, an unsustainable and ecologically damaging practice. We aim to genetically enhance BSF to efficiently biosynthesize omega-3 fatty acids. We will utilize our machine vision automated microinjection robot to screen dozens of genetic constructs for efficient functionality in vivo. Top-performing genetic constructs will be integrated into BSF to generate stable transgenic lines. We will also investigate the digestibility and microbiome effects of engineered BSF using in vitro assays to simulate a monogastric animal gut. We will perform public outreach to assess the commercial application of our omega-3 BSF, facilitating the pursuit of extramural funding through SBIR grants. Omega-3 producing BSF would convert Minnesota's organic waste into nutritious insect biomass for the swine, aquaculture, and poultry industries across the state.

Wood Waste to Walls: Pioneering a Regional Bioeconomy of Biochar-Based Carbon-Sequestering Building Materials 
Malini Srivastava, Architecture, College of Design
Matt Aro, UMD Natural Resources Research Institute
Emilie Snell-Rood, Ecology, Evolution and Behavior, College of Biological Sciences (CBS)
Mihai Marasteanu, Civil, Environmental, and Geo-Engineering, College of Science and Engineering (CSE)

Buildings contribute 37% of global greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions. Progress in reducing climate impacts of buildings has focused on reducing emissions from heating, cooling, and lighting, while solutions for reducing embodied carbon of the building materials are lacking. Biochar, a solid material made from thermally-decomposed biomass, is one of the most promising approaches for sequestering carbon. For every ton of dry woody biomass converted into biochar, approximately 0.9 tons of CO2 are sequestered. Biochar also shows promise for absorbing other GHGs and particulates and as a growth medium for plants. We propose to manufacture prototypes of biochar-containing bricks and plaster to reduce the embodied carbon of in-demand building materials. In parallel, we will determine the preliminary feasibility of a regional innovative building materials manufacturing bio-ecosystem that utilizes regionally-sourced and -produced biochar, in alignment with the state of MN’s goal to decarbonize all sectors of the economy by 2050 in an equitable way. To maintain forest health, the sourcing would upcycle both waste biomass and urban, diseased trees. This regional ecosystem would reduce the embodied carbon of our built environment, sequester CO2 and create a regional bio-economy in order to achieve global goals for net-zero emissions by 2050.