Innovation Spotlight: Light to Liquid - Comprehensive engineering for fuel from plants

January 05, 2013 12:05 AM EST By: Sarah Wenning

TechConnect Innovation Tracking: Wisconsin Institute for Sustainable Technology, a TechConnect Accelerator participant, ARPA-E Energy Innovation Summit, 2012

Professor Eric Singsaas is the Director of Research at the Wisconsin Institute for Sustainable Technologies (WIST).  The WIST team was a 2012 ARPA-E Finalist in the Plants Engineered To Replace Oil (PETRO) program. 

Dr. Singsaas tells TechConnect News, “We have developed methods to engineer plants that accumulate β-pinene and other compounds that can be easily converted into jet fuel.” The project’s aim is to construct a β-pinene synthesizing structure within plant cells that enhances photosynthesis and directly converts newly fixed carbon dioxide into pinene, thereby redirecting primary carbohydrate metabolism into hydrocarbon production. 

This project brings together an interdisciplinary team with a unique combination of skills to develop a new subcellular structure, dubbed the pinenoid. The team believes the pinenoid development will help the United States maintain its leadership in agricultural technology, for they think deployment of this technology in the agricultural sector will enhance U.S. energy security by developing an agricultural source for the energy-dense fuels that are compatible with today’s aviation fuels.

WIST believes its technology solves some major challenges with current biofuels: 1) It increases the productivity of biofuel per acre beyond what can be achieved by converting a food crop to ethanol. 2) It minimizes the steps, and thus costs, required to refine biomass to liquid fuels (e.g. no fermentation required; hydrocarbons would be extracted directly from the harvested biomass). 3) It maximizes carbon and energy capture by direct formation of product from carbon dioxide and by balancing light capture with carbon assimilation. 4) It increases water use efficiency of bioenergy crops by directly synthesizing a more reduced product in the leaf. 5) It increases efficiency of carbon dioxide fixation allowing high productivity with less nitrogen investment.

The WIST team is using approaches that integrate metabolic pathways found in widely divergent organisms, including MEP pathway from prokaryotes, pyrenoid metabolism in lower plants and algae, and C4 metabolism in higher plants. Their system will increase carbon dioxide fixation and the proportion of carbon directed to hydrocarbon production within the plant tissues via substrate channeling. In addition, they have developed an advanced process for efficiently extracting hydrocarbons for processing into jet fuel.

Dr. Singsaas tells TechConnect, “Our goal is to soon make sugar from lignocellulose much cheaper than corn.”

To learn more please visit:


  Subscribe to our mailing list, and we'll keep you posted of the latest developments.

RSS feed of TechConnect News™ RSS feed of TechConnect News™