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New study could help biofuel compete with oil

A new study may pave the way for turning biofuel waste into plastics, fabrics, nylon and adhesives.

Currently, biofuel waste called lignin is burned to produce electricity or left unused because scientists haven’t figured out how to use it to make useful products. Finding out ways to use lignin could make biofuel, made from plants, more price competitive with oil, since the biofuel waste could be sold for other products such as plastics, fabrics and adhesives.

Sandia National Laboratories researchers working with a team from Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory at the Joint BioEnergy Institute have decoded the structure and behavior of LigM, an enzyme that breaks down molecules derived from lignin.

The enzyme is different from other proteins, which previously made it impossible for scientists to guess how it functions.

The new study found that that half of LigM’s structure is composed of a common protein architecture found in all forms of life, from bacteria to humans. The rest of the enzyme — the active portion — is not found in any other known protein structure. This unique structure gives LigM the ability to bind specifically to molecules derived from lignin.

“Solving the structure allows us to understand how the organism may have evolved its unique function, which I think is scientifically one of the most interesting findings,” said Sandia scientist and study coauthor Ken Sale.

More research is needed to fully understand how to use lignin, said Sandia scientist and lead author Amanda Kohler.

“But now we have a much-needed understanding of a key step in this process, and are developing enzymes to fit our end goals of lowering the cost of biofuels by making products from lignin,” said Kohler.

By: David Beasley Staff Writer

Source: Sandia National Laboratories

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