Titan Supercomputer Probes Depths of Biofuel’s Biggest Barrier

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Researchers used experimental data to create a 23.7-million atom biomass model featuring cellulose (purple), lignin (brown), and enzymes (green). (Image credit: ORNL)

Ask a biofuel researcher to name the single greatest technical barrier to cost-effective ethanol, and you’re likely to receive a one-word response: lignin.

Cellulosic ethanol—fuel derived from woody plants and waste biomass—has the potential to become an affordable, renewable transportation fuel that rivals gasoline, but lignin, one of the most ubiquitous components of the plant cell wall, gets in the way.

To better understand exactly how lignin persists, researchers at Oak Ridge National Laboratory created one of the largest biomolecular simulations to date using the Titan supercomputer to track and analyze millions of atoms. The research was led by Jeremy Smith, UT Governor’s Chair based in the Department of Biochemistry and Cellular and Molecular Biology. He also is director of the UT-ORNL Center for Molecular Biophysics.

Continue reading on the ORNL website.

Learn more about Smith’s lignin research and the potential of an economically viable ethanol.