College of Engineering News • Iowa State University

Could the future of powering Iowa homes and farms be microbes?

Ratul Chowdhury
Ratul Chowdhury

Cyclone Engineer Ratul Chowdhury is advancing biobatteries that use microbes to turn trees and plants into electricity.

Chowdhury, an assistant professor of chemical and biological engineering, leads a project funded by the Iowa Economic Development Authority’s Iowa Energy Center (IEC) Grant Program.

The team is using AI-based protein engineering tools to design specialized types of microbial enzymes that feed on the lignin in agricultural plant waste and woody biomass. The enzyme-lignin reaction releases a stream of electrons that can be used as a biobattery power source.

“We’re developing computationally engineered enzymes that are faster and more efficient at breaking down lignin, the world’s second most abundant renewable carbon source, into simple saccharides and energy. This breakthrough holds promise for potential integration into non-toxic, biodegradable biobattery systems that could power agricultural tools and even whole houses,” said Chowdhury.

On top of designing and testing the special microbial enzymes, Chowdhury’s group will also create a database of enzymes from several microbial strains, all of which can accelerate lignin degradation and further enhance biobattery performance.

“Our work will employ a protein-structure-guided method to forecast the kinetic parameters of enzymes, which will offer essential insights. Without AI-driven protein structure prediction, determining enzymatic parameters in the lab is resource-intensive and time-consuming, and requires specialized equipment and expertise. But, leveraging AI and data-driven parameter estimation, we have a promising new pathway to transform our understanding of the reactions, speeding up our work to create metabolically fitter microbes that can digest lignin and contribute to better biobatteries,” said Chowdhury.

Chowdhury is collaborating with Shudipto Dishari and Rajib Saha of the University of Nebraska, and Karuna Anna Sajeevan, a postdoctoral researcher, and Bibek Acharya, a graduate student in chemical and biological engineering, at Iowa State.