US army award to further University of Tennessee bioenergy research

August 13, 2014

In faraway places around the world, U.S. soldiers are challenged with carrying out missions despite the lack of access to energy supplies. A University of Tennessee, Knoxville, bioenergy researcher has received funding from the U.S. Department of Defense to help find a solution.

Barry Bruce, professor of biochemistry and cellular and molecular biology, has received $96,713 from the Army Research Office to further his work in harnessing the power of photosynthesis to create cheap and efficient energy.

The money will purchase two photobioreactors and establish the Tennessee Photobioreactor Facility for Bioenergy Applications.

Photobioreactors are systems that create an artificial environment for larger-scale growing, harvesting and processing of photosynthetic organisms like cyanobacteria and algae. The machines will expedite Bruce's research by allowing him to increase his algae yields 50-fold while controlling growing conditions.

"We can scale up the production of these biological complexes to allow larger scale testing and characterization," said Bruce, who was named one of "Ten Revolutionaries that May Change the World" by Forbes magazine in 2007. "And by having controllable conditions, issues of cost and feasibility can be addressed and we can greatly increase the reproducibility and control of the growth process."

Bruce's prior work uncovered a novel way to harness the power of photosystem-I (PSI)--a key component of photosynthesis--from blue-green algae. With his new resources, he will continue to work toward using PSI into an effective biomolecular energy convertor to be used in portable devices that make electricity or energy on site and on demand. This research has the potential to supply soldiers in the field with a sustainable mechanism to use light and water to produce a renewable logistic fuel.

"Right now, the Army is faced with unprecedented challenges of trying to supply energy and power to units deployed in remote places where access to power grids is not possible--placing a heavy burden on the Army's logistics chain and putting soldiers' lives and missions in danger," said Bruce. "I hope that within 10 years, we will be able to develop a system that gives soldiers access to hydrogen fuel whenever and wherever they need it."

The photobioreactors will be used by other faculty for bioenergy research, as well. The facility will be located in Hesler Hall. Installation of the machines will begin this month and be completed this fall.

The award is part of the Department of Defense's Defense University Research Instrumentation Program, which augments current university capabilities and develops new university capabilities to perform cutting-edge defense research. For a list of awards, visit

University of Tennessee at Knoxville

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