Developing Renewable Energy Solutions

In an age of skyrocketing fuel costs, renewable energy is a hot-button issue in the scientific community. With that in mind, students and faculty members right here at Eastern Illinois University are currently engaged in noteworthy research of new ways to convert plant matter into biofuels.

"Our research is focused on discovering the mechanisms by which the gram negative bacterium Caulobacter crescentus is able to degrade plant biopolymers in order to obtain an energy source," explains Gerald Presley, an undergraduate biology/chemistry student and one of four students collaborating with Gopal Periyannan of the Department of Chemistry on this project.

"We wish to discover these mechanisms so we can mimic them in the laboratory using enzymes found in our bacterium in order to convert biomass into a form of chemical, like simple sugars, for biofuels production."

In essence, Presley, Dr. Periyannan and the others involved are attempting to identify and isolate enzymes involved in breaking down repeating sugar molecules found in the cell walls of plants. These enzymes can help convert biomass into fermentable sugars, which in turn can be used to produce sustainable energy sources like bioethanol and other fuel quality molecules.

"This research is important because we need to stop using oil to the extent we are using it today," adds Presley. "Oil controls everything, and fluctuations in oil prices can have serious impacts on the price of food and pretty much everything else. Therefore, we need to start producing more of our own, sustainable source of energy. Biofuels are part of the solution to this problem and will play a large role in transforming our society to a sustainable, self-sufficient one."

Adds Periyannan: "There is a national focus on renewable fuels. This is also interesting to EIU in particular because of our new renewable energy center. We also hope this can help develop future curriculum and research."

In late March, the group presented its research at the National Conferences for Undergraduate Research (NCUR) in Ithaca, N.Y. It has also received $50,000 in external funding to continue research, a true testament to the quality of its work when considering the heavy competition for this kind of outside money.

"These students are very self-motivated and take pride and responsibility for the project," says Periyannan. "Gerry's work, for instance, is highly regarded and closer in quality to that of a graduate student. A lot of times, he is pushing me — I don't think he sleeps much.

"Obviously the research grants and external funding prove they're all doing good things and are bringing recognition to the university. In return, Eastern administration encourages this kind of work by providing internal funding and other resources necessary to promote undergraduate research."

Periyannan says his research with his students is an equal partnership; they work together as peers rather than in a mentor/mentee relationship. He believes this allows them to develop independence and critical thinking skills in the laboratory, which is important in their training for graduate or professional school.

"I am more ready than ever to go to graduate school," agrees Presley. "I love doing research, and working in Dr. Periyannan's lab has helped me realize that. I look forward to graduate school, where I'll have more time to work on independent research projects."

"Working with Dr. Periyannan has been an excellent experience. He is motivated and energetic and really stays on us to get our jobs done. This has helped me become excited about the research I'm doing and has allowed me to learn more than I would have without his motivation."