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Biological Systems

ORNL research is examining life across scales, from the genome to the environment, to find biological solutions for sustainable energy sources and a cleaner world. Underpinning such solutions is a better understanding of complex biological systems and their intricate relationships with the environment. To achieve this understanding, ORNL brings together multidisciplinary expertise and special facilities in genomics, computational biology, plant sciences, microbiology, microbial ecology, biophysics, and structural biology. This collective expertise includes collaborations within and outside ORNL and focuses on scientific challenges in biology for Department of Energy (DOE) missions in energy and environment.

Engineering New Materials from Biomass

The vast agricultural and forest resources of the United States supply a variety of materials that go into making bioderived products, from biofuels to cosmetics

to the plastic in soda bottles. Advancements in biomass technologies and applications build on years of research in conjunction with the US Department of Energy (DOE) BioEnergy Science Center at Oak Ridge National Laboratory (ORNL) and are continuing to move forward with the launch of the Center for Bioenergy Innovation, also led by ORNL scientists.

The aim of ORNL's bioderived materials research is to develop methods and technologies that enable greater and higher value use of biomass to sustainably produce a wide range of high-performance products.

Bioderived materials research focuses on using a variety of strategically identified feedstocks and employing advanced processing methods to enable novel breakthroughs in fundamental science and product improvement.

Developing New Materials

A cross-disciplinary team of scientists is combining fundamental knowledge about plant biology with expertise in manufacturing to identify efficiencies and create new uses for biomass, matching plant characteristics and processing parameters to the end product. Researchers are studying nanocellulose, lignin, biofibers, and renewable composites for 3D printing.

  • Plant biology and genetics-Furthering an understanding of the relationship between genetics and plant characteristics based on studies of poplar trees, eucalyptus, and other feedstocks.
  • Conversion and engineering-Examining ways to deconstruct plants into usable components without destroying inherent plant characteristics. Synergistically combining biological and chemical conversion to achieve higher yields and novel products.
  • Materials and manufacturing-Exploring material compositions and manufacturing methods to create opportunities to add value to production streams and create new structural and functional materials.

Applications, Demonstration, and Industry Innovation

ORNL is a US leader in unclassified materials research and development, with particular emphasis on the array of materials derived from biological feedstocks, specifically woody and herbaceous biomass. These bioderived materials are based on common forms of naturally occurring polymers, including nanocellulose, lignin, and hemicellulose. ORNL is working to advance fundamental and applied research throughout the production pipeline, from feedstocks to conversion to demonstration.


Biomass from plants can be harvested, stored, processed, and transported to produce fuels or bioderived materials for 3D printing. By integrating basic and early-stage applied energy capabilities, ORNL is leading the way to developing new bioderived materials for a variety of applications, including large-scale additive manufacturing.

Center for Bioenergy Innovation

The Center for Bioenergy Innovation (CBI), led by Oak Ridge National Laboratory, is custom engineering feedstock plants and microbes for a sustainable bioeconomy. CBI builds on a robust legacy of scientific understanding to provide breakthroughs for a new generation of cost-effective, environmentally positive, and industrially relevant bioproducts and biofuels.

Moving Toward Bioproducts from Biomass

The vision for CBI is to accelerate domestication of bioenergy-relevant plants and microbes to enable high-impact, value-added coproduct development at multiple points in the bioenergy supply chain.

DEVELOPING sustainable biomass feedstock crops using plant genomics and bioengineering.

  • Development of perennial nonfood crops that thrive in the harsh environment of marginal lands, require less fertilizer and pesticide, and are more easily broken down and converted to advanced biofuels and bioproducts.

IMPROVING processes to simultaneously break down and convert plants into advanced biofuels.

  • More efficient, less costly biofuels production using an engineered microbe that will simultaneously break down and ferment plant biomass in a process called consolidated bioprocessing.
  • Creation of drop-in fuel substitutes like butanol that have properties similar to gasoline and can use the existing fuel delivery infrastructure.

CREATING valuable products from the lignin residue remaining after bioprocessing.

  • Use of new microbes and methods to convert leftover lignin into products such as chemical feedstocks that replace petrochemical feedstocks.

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