5 Minutes With… Jay Fitzgerald from U.S. DoE BETO
“There are a lot of really innovative bio-based products that are either commercialised or are coming to market shortly and they are making a tremendous impact by showing that companies can be successful focusing on sustainable, bio-based solutions.”
U.S. Department of Energy’s (DoE) Bioenergy Technologies Office (BTO) works with a broad spectrum of government, industrial, academic, agricultural, and non-profit partners across the United States to develop commercially viable, high-performance biofuels, bioproducts, and biopower made from renewable US biomass resources that reduce the country’s dependence on imported oil while enhancing energy security.
In 2017, the Office provided funding to establish the Agile BioFoundry, a U.S. National Laboratory-led effort to industrialise synthetic biology tools, funded at $20 million per year.
Here, Bio Market Insights’ Liz Gyekye catches up with Jay Fitzgerald, Technology Manager at the DOE’s Bioenergy Technologies Office.
LG: What’s the history behind the Bioenergy Technologies Office?
Jay Fitzgerald (JF): The Bioenergy Technologies Office is one of ten applied research and development (R&D) Offices focused on energy efficiency and renewable energy. The Office was formed from several previous Department of Energy programmes in order to focus on the commercialisation of cellulosic ethanol to enable US energy security through domestic energy production. The Office pursued multiple pathways toward cellulosic ethanol and ultimately demonstrated the technology in 2012. As commercial plants started to be built, the Office shifted focus to hydrocarbon fuels and bioproducts, while still focusing on major outstanding problems relevant to cellulosic ethanol such as biomass feedstock logistics, pre-treatment, and lignin conversion. Today, the Office has increased interest in areas like performance advantaged bioproducts, which are products that have superior properties to those derived from petroleum for certain applications. Even more recently, we have begun to look at new ways to tackle plastic waste using biological and chemical recycling methods as well as ways to redesign plastics using bio-based building blocks to have superior end-of-life properties.
LG: Before working at U.S. Department of Energy, what did you do?
JF: Before working at the U.S. Department of Energy I was a Science & Technology Policy Fellow for the American Association for the Advancement of Science. I worked on cross-government initiatives from my post at the Department of Energy Office of Science Biological & Environmental Research Program. Prior to that I received my PhD in Organic Chemistry from Stanford University in the laboratory of Chaitan Khosla working on the biosynthesis of medicinally important polyketide molecules.
LG: What’s been the biggest challenge you face?
JF: As an R&D funding organisation we aim to fund the most cutting-edge pre-competitive research in the field of bioenergy. We help to provide a medium and long-term vision for the bioeconomy that will help to promote domestic energy security from sustainable US biomass resources. Aligning this longer-term vision with the current needs of the US bioenergy industry provides an opportunity to balance current and future goals and help the bioeconomy to grow.
LG: How are you helping to promote synthetic biology?
JF: In 2017 the Office provided funding to establish the Agile BioFoundry, a U.S. National Laboratory-led effort to industrialise synthetic biology tools, funded at $20 million per year. The Agile BioFoundry is focused on improving the efficiency of the Design-Build-Test-Learn cycle by applying advanced synthetic biology tools including machine learning and muti-omic analysis in industrially-relevant host organisms to overcome biomanufacturing challenges. The Agile BioFoundry partners with industry and academia to enable these tools and expertise to help bring bioproducts to market more quickly. Our current partners include LanzaTech, Lygos, Agilent, Teselagen, Kiverdi, Visolis, Zymochem, The University of Georgia, and the University of San Diego.
LG: What is coming up next in your organisation?
JF: The Office’s most recent partnership opportunity for the Agile BioFoundry which closed in July is undergoing review and we hope to be able to announce selections shortly. We have revamped our website at www.agilebiofoundry.org with updated information on new ways to partner with the Agile BioFoundry, as well as one-slide summaries of our recent publications.
LG: What advice would you give to somebody else working starting out in this field?
JF: Make sure that the projects you are working on have real impact in the long term. If the bioeconomy is to become a reality, many elements of the current way that fuels and products are produced will have to change. The tools of synthetic biology can contribute to that change, but only if they are applied to the right problems, and finding those problems with real long-term impact should be the goal of funding agencies and entrepreneurs alike.
LG: What is your favourite sustainable/bio-based product?
JF: There are a lot of really innovative bio-based products that are either commercialised or are coming to market shortly and they are making a tremendous impact by showing that companies can be successful focusing on sustainable, bio-based solutions. I’ll highlight one product in particular that I think shows a lot of innovation from the DOE National Laboratories, though. The National Renewable Energy Laboratory recently discovered a route to bio-based acrylonitrile, a carbon fibre precursor, through the development of some very novel nitrilation chemistry that has very good potential environmental benefits when compared to the incumbent process. Given the growing importance of carbon fibre for materials applications, figuring out ways to make the capacity that will be built in the future to be based on these types of sustainable chemistries one chemical at a time will have a huge impact on the viability of the future bioeconomy.