Fundamental Research Division
The DRF at the CEA assemble approximately 6,000 scientists since January 2016.
Bio-inspired catalysis | Biohydrogen | Bioenergy | Green Chemistry
The use of hydrogen as a “vector” of energy is based on
the control of its production in large quantities (by electrolysis of
water) and its utilization in fuel cells. However, the two processes
require expensive, rare catalysts like platinum. Researchers at the DSV (Life Sciences Division)
are finding inspiration from living organisms to develop new catalysts
based on abundant metals in nature, such as cobalt or iron. Their
favorite models are hydrogenases, enzymes which in some organisms have
chelated metal ions in their active sites to produce hydrogen, or to use
it as an energy source. Knowing the structure of the active site
provides essential design elements for innovation in catalysis. Some
bioinspired structures have already been incorporated into technological
The use of photosynthetic microorganisms such as microalgae (Chlamydomonas, diatoms, etc.) or cyanobacteria allows considering the production of third generation biofuels that will not mobilize agricultural land, as do first and second generation biofuels. Light, water and CO2 are almost sufficient to culture them. The DSV also studies these microorganisms in order to evaluate and reinforce their potential to synthesize lipids (for biodiesel or biokerosene), sugars (for bioethanol) and hydrogen, with the goal of achieving an elevated productivity in bioreactors. To accomplish this, teams at the DSV are trying to understand the fundamental mechanisms of photosynthesis, metabolic regulation, and stress resistance of these microorganisms. These approaches are the subject of partnerships with industry (including Fermentalg, Microphyt, and Total Énergies nouvelles). The use of microalgae would also bring other benefits by absorbing a part of industrial wastes in CO2 and coupling this to the recycling of wastewater.
Industry often uses resources such as high temperatures or toxic solvents to accelerate chemical reactions, such as in the synthesis of innocuous products. Living organisms offer alternative solutions since the chemical reactions are often performed at room temperature and in neutral environments like water. This is accomplished through unparalleled catalysts at their disposal: enzymes, i.e. proteins that accelerate chemical reactions and ensure selectivity. Genomic analysis of biodiversity conducted at the DSV (see box) contributes to the inventory of these enzymes. Their functions are then tested by high-throughput screening in vitro.
Microbial is largely unknown since certain microorganisms are impossible to isolate and culture. To study the biodiversity of an environment, teams from the Genomics Institute (CEA-IG) in Évry resort to metagenomics. This technique, made possible by the increase in bioinformatics data processing capabilities, consists in sequencing at once the genome of all organisms in a sample from a given environment, such as a wastewater treatment plant or the intestinal flora of an individual. On the one hand, these studies allow reconstructing the genomes of unknown organisms and increasing our knowledge of biodiversity. On the other hand, they allow an inventory of enzyme activities and metabolic processes. These inventories make up a fundamental database for teams in search of enzymatic activities for use in industry.[picture : The study of biodiversity helps to increase the database of known enzymatic activities. Shown here are plankton collected by the Tara Oceans Expedition, of which the CEA takes part in. ©Tara Foundation]
According to a collaboration coordinated by the LSCE (CEA-CNRS-UVSQ), it is necessary to take into account the biophysical effects of bioenergy crops (including CO2 capture and sequestration) in order to properly assess their effectiveness in the fight against climate change.
Researchers from the CEA-Irig and their partners have developed a new enzymatic process for reducing CO2 and oxidizing CO. Efficient and able to operate under mild conditions, it could be used to purify gas from biomass pyrolysis in order to produce fuels or chemical precursors.
Drawing upon the 3D reconstruction of the cellular architecture of several phytoplankton families, researchers at the CEA-Irig have demonstrated that the physiological responses of these eukaryotes are associated with certain characteristics of their energy-producing organelles. This work thus provides new perspectives for the production of algal biomass, upstream of biotechnology applications.
Researchers from the CEA-Joliot and their partners have studied the efficiency of bio-inspired catalysts at reducing CO2 on the basis of their chemical structure. Their results provide an opportunity to develop catalysts that can be used on a large scale ... as well as reduce the accumulation of CO2 in the atmosphere!
A team from the Iramis (CEA-CNRS) has shown that aluminosilicate nanotubes (imogolites) have an interesting potential for photocatalysis. These light-activated semiconductors could be functionalized to depollute water, in an environmentally friendly way.
CEA is a French government-funded technological research organisation in four main areas: low-carbon energies, defense and security, information technologies and health technologies. A prominent player in the European Research Area, it is involved in setting up collaborative projects with many partners around the world.