Dr. Barbara KutchkoGeology researcher shares her passion for safer energy production and therapeutic riding

Dr. Barbara Kutchko always knew she wanted to be a scientist, but she didn’t know what kind until she saw the majestic rock formations at Utah’s national parks. Seeing the layers of rock and the unique structures inspired her to study the Earth’s past and to protect the Earth’s future. Then she realized that geology was her calling.

While completing a master’s in geology at the University of Pittsburgh, Dr. Kutchko discovered the ORISE program, which brought her to DOE’s National Energy Technology Laboratory (NETL). As an ORISE intern, Dr. Kutchko grew as a researcher and became invested in continuing her career at NETL. Good fortune and prior experience using electron microscopy—which uses accelerated electrons to illuminate the structure of small objects—to analyze concrete led Dr. Kutchko to head up a project using electron spectroscopy to help improve cement’s effectiveness in wellbores. This work contributed to completion of her Ph.D. from Carnegie Mellon University.

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NREL Senior Scientist Roman Brunecky examines the molecular weight of the enzyme CelA on a gel in the Protein Chemistry Lab in the Field Test Laboratory Building on NREL's Golden, Colorado, campus. Photo by Dennis SchroederNREL's CelA Catalyzes Plant Cell Walls Faster

Scientists at DOE's National Renewable Energy Laboratory (NREL) have developed an enzyme that could change the economics of biofuel conversion by converting biomass to sugars up to 14 times faster and much cheaper than competing catalysts in enzyme cocktails today.

This enzyme is called CelA, a cellulase from the bacterium Caldicellulosiruptor bescii, and the fact that it's from a bacterium, and not a fungus, is just one reason why it is such a potential game-changer. CelA  works in two mechanical realms, not just one. It is an ablater, scraping the valuable material off the cell walls of the plants. But it is also a borer, digging deep into the wall to grab more of the digestible biomass. It is the only enzyme known to dig pits into biomass; others only ablate. CelA also can operate at much higher temperatures than other enzymes, which means faster action.

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See also…

DOE Pulse
  • Number 439  |
  • May 18, 2015
  • Inventing extra protection for high energy waste

    Prototype of improved radiological containment bag. At DOE's Savannah River National Laboratory, the primary goal is innovation for safe and cost effective legacy waste cleanup.  New methods are constantly being explored in order to protect workers and protect the environment.  When Senior Scientist Dr. Aaron Washington realized that a radiological waste bag wasn’t lasting as long as he would like, he set about inventing a new one.  As a result, Washington and his team of researchers created a “double-ply” waste containment bag capable of better containing nuclear waste.

    Much like a household garbage bag is used to protect waste from leaking into a garbage can, special radiological waste bags are used to keep radiation from leaking into a storage container.  After time, materials used to create these bags fail due to damage from intense or long-term exposure to radiation.

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  • Researchers study how metal contamination makes gasoline production inefficient

    Research at the Department of Energy’s SLAC National Accelerator Laboratory could lead to more efficient gasoline production. (@iStockphoto/Patryk Kosmider) Scientists at the DOE’s SLAC National Accelerator Laboratory and Utrecht University have identified key mechanisms of the aging process of catalyst particles that are used to refine crude oil into gasoline. This advance could lead to more efficient gasoline production.

    Their recent experiments studied so-called fluid catalytic cracking (FCC) particles that are used to break long-chain hydrocarbons in crude oil into smaller, more valuable hydrocarbons like gasoline.

    “A major problem is that these catalysts quickly age and lose their activity, so tons of fresh catalysts have to be added to a reactor system every day,” said lead researcher Florian Meirer, assistant professor of inorganic chemistry and catalysis at Utrecht University in the Netherlands. “We are trying to understand how this aging happens, and we’re working with companies that produce these FCC catalysts to make the process more efficient.”

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  • Superhydrophobic glass coating offers clear benefits

    Schematic representation of the coated product and applications. A moth’s eye and lotus leaf were the inspirations for an antireflective water-repelling, or superhydrophobic, glass coating that holds significant potential for solar panels, lenses, detectors, windows, weapons systems and many other products.

    The discovery by researchers at DOE’s Oak Ridge National Laboratory, detailed in a paper published in the Journal of Materials Chemistry C, is based on a mechanically robust nanostructured layer of porous glass film. The coating can be customized to be superhydrophobic, fog-resistant and antireflective.

    “While lotus leaves repel water and self-clean when it rains, a moth’s eyes are antireflective because of naturally covered tapered nanostructures where the refractive index gradually increases as light travels to the moth’s cornea,” said Tolga Aytug, lead author of the paper and a member of ORNL’s Materials Chemistry Group. “Combined, these features provide truly game-changing ability to design coatings for specific properties and performance.”

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