Zhang receives prestigious DARPA Young Faculty Award

Because petroleum is a limited resource worldwide, Fuzhong Zhang has been working to find alternative solutions to replace it. Now, he has received an $860,000 award to use common bacteria to make gasoline and other chemicals now derived from petroleum.

Fuzhong Zhang

Zhang, assistant professor of energy, environmental & chemical engineering, has received a Young Faculty Award from the Defense Advanced Research Project Agency of the U.S. Department of Defense. He is the first faculty member at Washington University in St. Louis to receive the award, which recognizes an elite group of scientists early in their careers at research universities. This year, the agency awarded more than $12 million to 25 researchers out of 226 applicants.

Zhang’s award funds up to three years of research on his plan to engineer bacteria to produce non-natural fatty acids, which can be easily converted to advanced biofuels and chemicals that could reduce the demand on the world’s petroleum supply.

Zhang will use his chemistry expertise to engineer the fatty acid pathway to make a molecule with a chemical structure similar to isoctane, which is the major component in gasoline.

“Currently, most engineers are able to engineer bacteria to synthesize ethanol, butanol or biodiesel, but nobody has been able to synthesize gasoline,” Zhang says. “Our goal is not only to make gasoline, but also to go broader so that the next step would allow us to produce many useful chemicals that are currently derived from petroleum, such as detergents, solvents and lubricants.”
Zhang says the bacterium Escherichia coli was a natural choice for this project.

“E. coli grows very rapidly and has an efficient fatty acid biosynthetic system,” he says. “Once we engineer it, it will produce chemicals very efficiently.”

“Secondly, E. coli is a well-engineered and well-understood bacteria, so many tools have already been developed that we can use to control the pathway much better than with other hosts,” he says.

Zhang says DARPA is interested in this technology because a petroleum alternative would reduce the reliance on petroleum for fuels and chemicals and because the technology would allow the production of a set of non-natural molecules from cheap, sustainable resources.

The long-term goal of the DARPA Young Faculty Award Program is to develop the next generation of scientists and engineers who will focus their careers and research on the Department of Defense and national security issues.

The School of Engineering & Applied Science at Washington University in St. Louis focuses intellectual efforts through a new convergence paradigm and builds on strengths, particularly as applied to medicine and health, energy and environment, entrepreneurship and security. With 82 tenured/tenure-track and 40 additional full-time faculty, 1,300 undergraduate students, 700 graduate students and more than 23,000 alumni, we are working to leverage our partnerships with academic and industry partners — across disciplines and across the world — to contribute to solving the greatest global challenges of the 21st century.