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Major grant for research on microorganisms for producing sustainable biofuels

A grant of DKK 10 million will enable Amelia-Elena Rotaru, Associate Professor, University of Southern Denmark, to carry out research on microorganisms that can convert electricity and CO2 to natural gas.

Amelia-Elena Rotaru recently discovered some promising microorganisms that can convert electricity and CO2 into methane (natural gas).

This has great industrial potential in producing sustainable biofuels, and the Novo Nordisk Foundation has therefore awarded Amelia-Elena Rotaru an Ascending Investigator grant of DKK 10 million over the next 5 years through its ambitious Research Leader Programme to investigate how these microorganisms achieve this. The discoveries could pave the way for entirely new ways of solving some of the major environmental challenges the world faces.

“Today we have three biotechnological challenges: producing chemicals sustainably, carbon capture and storage and storing renewable energy. These microorganisms seem to be able to address all these challenges at once,” says Amelia-Elena Rotaru.

Eliminating the need for hydrogen to produce biofuels
Amelia-Elena Rotaru’s research over the next 5 years is in a rapidly developing field. More and more industrial partners are examining the potential for optimizing the conversion of CO2 from biogas to methane.

One challenge in purifying biogas is to ensure lots of methane and very little CO2. Many companies involved in upgrading biogas to methane use hydrogen in their processes. Microorganisms then convert hydrogen and CO2 into methane and water. Hydrogen can be produced by water electrolysis using renewable electricity but storing and handling this explosive gas is a challenge.

This may potentially be unnecessary.

“The natural gas industry seeks to ensure that the methane concentration exceeds 98% so purified biogas can be stored in the natural gas grid. The microorganisms we will investigate can potentially circumvent the use of hydrogen in purifying biogas since these microorganisms can use electricity directly to convert CO2 and water into methane,” explains Amelia-Elena Rotaru.

Paving the way for industrial collaboration
Amelia-Elena Rotaru says that her research over the next 5 years will include studying microbial surface structures that seem to play an important role in channelling electrons from electrodes directly into cells, eliminating the need for hydrogen as an intermediate when converting CO2 to methane.

Amelia-Elena Rotaru explains that this grant from the Foundation is a major boost that has created awareness about her research project even before it has started. Based on major discoveries by Amelia-Elena Rotaru’s laboratory in 2019 and 2020, several industrial partners have expressed interest in collaborating, increasing momentum for the next 5 years of research in this field.

“This type of grant supports research with long-term goals. It enables me to focus on my research rather than constantly having to apply for one small grant after another. The grant also shows that serious investment is being made in fundamental research in biotechnology. This has contributed to companies contacting me to establish major projects based on the technology, which is fantastic,” concludes Amelia-Elena Rotaru.

143 researchers have received a grant


Amelia-Elena Rotaru’s grant is part of the Foundation’s Research Leader Programme.

The Foundation has just awarded DKK 370 million through the Programme for research within fields including health, disease and sustainability. The grants are for up to DKK 10 million and are awarded to researchers at three different career stages.

38 researchers have been awarded grants in 2021:

  • 18 researchers in the Emerging Investigator category have received grants to establish their own research group.
  • 14 researchers in the Ascending Investigator category have received grants to consolidate their research group and profile.
  • 6 researchers in the Distinguished Investigator category have received grants to continue their research at an already high international level.

143 researchers have received 5-year grants since 2018.

Read more about the Foundation’s Research Leader Programme here.

Further information

Christian Mostrup, Senior Programme Lead, +45 3067 4805, [email protected]