FEATURE — Summer 2009
   

 
Professor Himadri Pakrasi (right) meets with freshman Tiffany Tsao in the Goldfarb Plant Growth Facility. Pakrasi and members of his lab are seeking to better understand the photosynthetic process in flowering plants, mosses, and algae.

Harvesting Green Energy

Professor Himadri Pakrasi researches the pathways microbes and plants use during photosynthesis, and the possibility of emulating these processes to harness renewable energy.

By Janni L. Simner

In the search for renewable sources of energy, Himadri Pakrasi recommends looking to the experts—algae and plants.

“Harvesting solar energy is what plants do,” says Pakrasi, who is the George William and Irene Koechig Freiberg Professor of Biology in Arts & Sciences as well as a professor of energy in the School of Engineering & Applied Science. “Plants use sunlight to extract energy from water. In doing so they make all the things we need to sustain our lives.”

 

Pakrasi’s dedication to better understanding the green-energy operations of algae and plants—which even elementary school children know as photosynthesis—is one of the things that led the University to name him director of the International Center for Advanced Renewable Energy and Sustainability (I-CARES). Established two years ago, I-CARES is committed to encouraging sustainable energy research among departments and across international borders—a crucial task in this era of dwindling oil supplies and rising carbon dioxide levels.

“Professor Pakrasi is a noted scholar in the field of biology—specifically helping us to better understand the complex process of photosynthesis in cyanobacteria,” says Chancellor Mark S. Wrighton. “At Washington University, he has been an accomplished leader with a reputation for bringing people together across different academic disciplines to meet common research objectives. I am pleased to have him serve as director of the International Center for Advanced Renewable Energy and Sustainability—working to place Washington University in a leadership role to address some of the world’s greatest challenges.”

Those challenges are formidable, in part because of the sheer amount of energy humans consume; we’d have to build a nuclear power plant a week for the next 40 years to meet our current energy needs. Pakrasi says needs this great cannot possibly be met by a single department or academic field—or even a single solution. That’s why the interdisciplinary and international focus of I-CARES is so important. “We need to develop short-term, middle-term, and long-term solutions,” Pakrasi says.

Pakrasi’s own research may one day contribute to the long-term solutions. While we start studying photosynthesis in elementary school, there’s a lot we still don’t know about this process—and that Pakrasi and his colleagues are committed to finding out. Working with cyanobacteria (“blue- green algae”)—bacteria that photosynthesize in much the same way plants do—as well as with mosses and flowering plants, Pakrasi is seeking to better understand several aspects of photosynthesis: the role of the membranes in the plant cells that house the photosynthetic apparatus, issues of maintaining fluid and nutrient balance, and the details of the physical and chemical pathways involved in drawing energy from the sun.

He’s particularly interested in a group of proteins collectively known as Photosystem 2 that form a critical part of those pathways. A group of four atoms of the element manganese plays a particularly critical role in how Photosystem 2 works, and Pakrasi’s now seeking to understand exactly how the manganese atoms are arranged. That understanding could ultimately help pave the way for photosynthesis-based solar energy. “Maybe one day we can organize manganese in solar cells as well,” Pakrasi says, “so that we can emulate plants and use sunlight to produce oxygen and extract energy.”

“Maybe one day we can organize manganese in solar cells as well,” Pakrasi says, “so that we can emulate plants and use sunlight to produce oxygen and extract energy.”

Emulating how plants produce energy could have many advantages, but perhaps the biggest is that plants not only do not emit carbon dioxide into the air we breathe, they actively consume it. “Photosynthesis is a very sustainable way of harvesting energy, and it happens right before our eyes,” Pakrasi says. “The great mystery is right here: How do plants do what they do, and what can we learn from them?”

Pakrasi is actively involved in other projects as well, including collaborating with Washington University’s Genome Sequencing Center to better understand the genomes of cyanobacteria. He also spearheads a five-year, $5 million National Science Foundation (NSF) grant to study how photosynthetic organisms respond to unusually intense levels of sunlight—more research that could eventually help us to better harvest sunlight for human purposes.

“Himadri has always been at the cutting edge of thinking and technology,” says Ralph Quatrano, dean of Arts & Sciences and the Spencer T. Olin Professor of Biology. “He’s made seminal contributions in this field over the last 15 years.” Quatrano, a longtime colleague of Pakrasi’s, is currently working with him on the NSF-funded project.

Kimberly Wegener, a doctoral student in plant biology and a member of Professor Pakrasi's lab, studies photosynthesis in different species of cyanobacteria. This research provides insight into the mechanism of energy metabolism in cyanobacteria, algae, and plants. (Photo: Joe Angeles)

Pakrasi says understanding plants better could one day solve our energy problems, but he’s quick to add that we shouldn’t rely on photosynthesis—or any other single method—alone to do so. For one thing, photosynthetic solar cells are likely another 30 years away, and we can’t ignore our current energy needs until we perfect them. We need to pursue shorter-term sustainable energy sources as well.

“We cannot wait for the perfect solution,” Pakrasi says. “We need a 10-year plan, a 50-year plan, and a 100-year plan.” In the near term, he says, we should consider every possible potential renewable energy source at hand, including biofuels, wind power, and geothermal power. “We have to take advantage of just about any way we can to harvest energy in a nondestructive manner,” Pakrasi says.

He adds that everyone has a role to play in our near-term energy solutions, in part through basic conservation measures such as shutting off lights when we leave rooms, combining many small trips to the grocery story into fewer shorter ones, and reducing our use of bottled water and the disposable plastic that goes with it. “The collective effects of these types of activities can have a strong impact,” Pakrasi says. “Every bit helps.”

Conserving the energy we have and harvesting renewable energy every way we can both require expertise in a wide range of fields—everything from biology, chemistry, and physics to architecture, political science, and social science—as well as a tremendous amount of collaboration among the researchers in all these fields. That’s where I-CARES (i-cares.wustl.edu/) comes in.

“I-CARES is not a school, and it’s not a department,” Pakrasi says. “It’s an entity that crosses all schools and all departments. There is nothing at I-CARES that is not interdisciplinary.”

Thus far, Washington University has committed more than $70 million to I-CARES. Those funds are contributing to the Stephen F. and Camilla T. Brauer Hall now under construction on the northeast side of the Danforth Campus. When completed in fall 2010, Brauer Hall will house the Department of Energy, Environmental, & Chemical Engineering and I-CARES. Funds also are committed to endowing seven interdisciplinary university professorships and supporting 12 collaborative research projects on campus. A call for additional projects recently went out.

I-CARES also encourages international collaboration by acting as the umbrella organization for the McDonnell Academy Global Energy and Environment Partnership (MAGEEP). I-CARES has helped fund 14 MAGEEP research projects to date (mageep.wustl.edu/), and it organized a McDonnell Academy meeting in Hong Kong that brought together researchers from 24 universities in 14 countries. Conference speakers included Nobel Prize–winning physicist Steven Chu, who is now the U.S. secretary of energy.

I-CARES and MAGEEP recently announced another international effort where research and industry will work together: the Consortium for Clean Coal Utilization, which will seek out more sustainable and less environmentally damaging ways of using coal. “The way I-CARES sees it, coal is going to be used no matter what,” Pakrasi says. “So how can we help lower the burden of carbon dioxide that invariably comes with the use of coal?” Peabody, Arch Coal, Inc., and Ameren are the founding sponsors of the consortium.

“There’s a lot of work that needs to be done,” Pakrasi says of all I-CARES’ efforts, including a new initiative with the U.S. Department of Energy (Frontrunners). “It cannot be done by a single lab or a single school or a single university. We need to create a collaborative environment where people are comfortable going beyond the boundaries of their own departments and their own nations to work on big projects and big ideas.”

Pakrasi is well-suited to lead such a collaborative effort. He earned his undergraduate and graduate degrees not in biology but in physics, from Presidency College and the University of Calcutta in India. It wasn’t until he came to the University of Missouri at Columbia to earn his Ph.D. that he began working as a biologist. After completing postdoctoral work at Michigan State University, he worked at DuPont—where he first met Quatrano—for a time. “I quickly figured out that industry wasn’t for me,” Pakrasi says. Recruited by Washington University, he came here as an assistant professor of biology in 1987 and never left.

Pakrasi still loves working across disciplines—with physicists, chemists, mathematicians, engineers, and others—and does so regularly both in his own research and as director of I-CARES. “Coupling an interdisciplinary background with the people skills to lead is a rare combination, but Himadri has that combination,” Quatrano says. “He’s really stepped forward to take on responsibility and leadership in issues of energy, the environment, and sustainability.”

Pakrasi says continuing to cross boundaries of all sorts is critical, because we need to succeed in finding and developing better and more sustainable sources of energy.

“Today or tomorrow or 10 years from now, we’re going to deplete our fossil fuel resources,” he says. “Unless we do our research and development now, we’re going to be in big trouble someday.”

He is quick to emphasize, however, that researchers know what needs to be done. “I truly believe that this is the era of energy research,” he says. “That should be at the front and center of everything we do.”

Janni L. Simner, A.B. ’89, A.B. ’89, is a freelance writer based in Tucson, Arizona.

I-CARES Initiatives
The International Center for Advanced Renewable Energy and Sustainability (I-CARES)
was established to encourage collaborative research—across university departments and with international partners—into alternative energy sources. Under the leadership of director Himadri Pakrasi, Washington University has already invested more than $60 million into the following I-CARES initiatives.

Physical Facilities
Under construction on the northeast corner of the Danforth Campus, the Stephen F. and Camilla T. Brauer Hall will house the Department of Energy, Environmental, & Chemical Engineering, I-CARES, and I-CARES projects. I-CARES also provides green technology support for other university operations.

Interdisciplinary Campus Research
I-CARES is funding renewable energy projects that bring together campus experts from architecture, biology, chemistry, engineering, environmental science, and medicine. The first 12 projects include research into ways to:
• Develop biofuel sources
• Lower energy use in buildings
• Reduce carbon dioxide levels
• Understand—and learn from—the ways that the plants and microbes around us use energy
• Understand the role of geology in climate change
• Use coal more cleanly
• Use photosynthesis and nanotechnology to harvest solar energy

Endowed Professorships
I-CARES is funding six interdisciplinary endowed professorships that will draw researchers to the University with expertise in engineering, nanotechnology, ecology, chemistry, climate change, architecture, public policy, and public health. These professorships will focus on:
• Developing sustainable, environmentally friendly building and landscape architecture practices
• The effects of energy use upon public health, people, economies, and politics
• The impact of emissions and aerosols on the environment
• The impact of human energy use on the environment and the planet
• Using plants, algae, and other organisms as renewable biofuels
• Ways of harvesting and storing solar energy

International Collaboration
I-CARES collaborates with institutions around the world as the umbrella organization for the McDonnell Academy Global Energy and Environment Partnership (MAGEEP). MAGEEP brings together researchers from 24 institutions in 14 countries, including Brazil, Chile, China, Hungary, India, Indonesia, Israel, Japan, Singapore, South Korea, Taiwan, Thailand, Turkey, and the United States. I-CARES has funded 14 MAGEEP projects to date in areas such as:
• Adapting household appliances to address energy concerns
• Controlling lead in the environment
• Energy’s supply and demand issues
• Global climate change
• Indoor and outdoor air quality issues
• Sustainable mass transit
• Treating and reusing wastewater
• Using photosynthesis and nanotechnology to harvest solar energy
• Water-generated power
Along with other MAGEEP partners Washington University also recently issued an international “Call to Action,” urging universities around the world to pool their resources in a global effort to create a sustainable future.

Consortium for Clean Coal Utilization
I-CARES recently announced the Consortium for Clean Coal Utilization to develop ways to use coal as a low-cost, reliable energy source; reduce carbon dioxide emissions; improve the public’s understanding of coal; and train coal workers in clean coal technologies. Eventually consortium collaborators will include other universities and representatives from industry. Peabody, Arch Coal, Inc., and Ameren are sponsors of the consortium.