Animated Ethanol Molecule, Not Just For the Kids


What could have more green-geek cred than using computer modeling to demonstrate a molecule used to break down plants from which biofuels are made? Winning an award for making the visuals look so dope. National Renewable Energy Labs Senior Scientist Michael Crowley recently took home second prize in the DOE’s Electronic Visualization competition for his animation of the “cellobiohydrolase Cel7A” molecule, an enzyme that decays plants. (We’d also like to give the accompanying image an award for our favorite pic this year — a satisfied, bearded do-gooder scientists having fun with nifty graphics.)

The animation isn’t the end unto itself. Crowley has visually mapped it out to help researchers eventually bioengineer a version of Cel7A that could be useful for cellulosic biofuel production. In nature, Cel7A turns cellulose into simple sugars at a pace that’s good enough for plants, but not quite fast enough for an industry that wants to pump gallons of the end product into our fuel tanks. Engineering the enzyme could deliver an efficient way to churn out biofuels from cellulosic — and more importantly, non-food feedstocks.

Crowley’s research is being funded by the NREL to the tune of $1 million a year over five years. He’s working with researchers from Oak Ridge National Laboratory, Cornell University, Forest Products Research Lab, Scripps Research Institute and the University of California at San Diego. The work could not only help deliver innovations for biofuels, but will likely produce computer science work in the form of codes and algorithms that will help researchers do similarly complex supercomputer-based modeling.

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