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Research and Innovation

New Interdisciplinary Research Collaboration Will Tackle Global Challenges

Wilson College Associate Professor Sonja Salmon will lead this collaboration.

person stands in soybean field (back right corner).

By Morgan High

Reducing carbon emissions and developing environmentally-friendly paths to fertilizer production are increasingly urgent challenges facing our world. The ability to discover and quickly scale solutions will require innovative partnerships across public and private sectors.

A new interdisciplinary research collaboration between North Carolina State University (NC State) and the Technical University of Denmark (Danmarks Tekniske Universitet, DTU) aims to uncover new biology-based methods for CO2 management and sustainable fertilizer production.

The project, called the Biocatalyst Interactions with Gases (BIG) Collaboration, is funded by the Novo Nordisk Foundation (NNF). Led by NC State, the collaboration team will receive 50 million Danish Kroner (DKK), or approximately $6.5 million in funding over five years.

“This interdisciplinary initiative will help solve global challenges to nourish and sustain our future.”
– Associate Professor Sonja Salmon

The BIG Collaboration aligns with NNF’s recently launched 2030 strategy which focuses on solving global challenges within health and sustainability and supporting a strong life science ecosystem. As part of its sustainability goals, NNF is working to address the pressing question of how to feed a growing global population while developing new technologies to mitigate climate change.

​​“The Novo Nordisk Foundation is very pleased to initiate and support this highly ambitious interdisciplinary project which will grow our understanding of fundamental biological questions,” said NNF Scientific Director Torben V. Borchert. “The project has strong potential to develop new sustainable processes for the production of essential chemicals, resulting in significant societal benefit.”

NNF’s vision also aligns with NC State’s commitment to sustainability. A core value outlined in the university’s strategic plan, environmental stewardship and energy efficiency measures are integrated throughout campus operations, academics and research. Continued improvements are benchmarked across climate, energy, water, transportation and more.

“Together with the Novo Nordisk Foundation, NC State is proud to work toward solutions to complex global challenges,” said NC State Chancellor Randy Woodson. “These discoveries require innovation-driven interdisciplinary partnerships. The BIG Collaboration is a unique opportunity for NC State to make a significant impact on society.”

The BIG Collaboration will be led by Wilson College of Textiles Associate Professor Sonja Salmon. Salmon, a two-time graduate of NC State, earned her Ph.D. in fiber and polymer science and bachelor’s degree in textile chemistry. She is a recognized expert on carbon capture science and technology, with more than two decades of industry research experience.

“Fundamental insights generated by our BIG Collaboration will lead to advanced bio-based solutions,” said Salmon. “Working closely with our partners at DTU and NNF, this interdisciplinary initiative will help solve global challenges to nourish and sustain our future.”

The project team will investigate and create new types of biological catalyst systems that are capable of carrying out fundamental chemical reactions required within two critical research areas: CO2 management for greenhouse gas reduction and nitrogen fixation for fertilizer production.

Nitrogen, the most abundant gas in Earth’s atmosphere, must be converted to water soluble ammonium salts before most crops can use it as an essential nutrient –– making this conversion critical for a sustainable food supply. However, converting nitrogen to ammonia by current industrial methods is very energy-intensive.

The project team aims to develop new enzyme-based approaches that will lower the energy requirement for ammonia production. Similar approaches –– using different enzymes –– will also be investigated to improve the rate at which CO2 gas is converted into small water-soluble compounds, like bicarbonate and formate. The goal is for these complementary approaches to help advance technologies that will minimize industrial CO2 emissions while creating useful precursors for cement, fuels, chemicals and fertilizer. Studying these life-essential biocatalyzed gas reactions will lead to new innovations that contribute to global sustainability solutions.

The BIG Collaboration Science Leadership Team brings together 11 co-PIs with research expertise in textiles, biochemistry, enzymology, physics, nuclear engineering, environmental engineering, chemical and biomolecular engineering, plant and microbial biology, agricultural engineering, and materials sciences.

The BIG Collaboration Science Leadership Team

“The partnership enables unique collaborations across disciplines ranging from microbiology to fluid dynamics,” said DTU Professor and Co-PI Peter Westh. “This interdisciplinarity is essential for advancing the science and technology that will drive the transition to a globally sustainable society.”

Serving as a co-PI on the project is NC State Microbiologist Amy Grunden. Grunden’s Collaborative Crop Resilience Program (CCRP), which was previously funded by NNF, focuses on making crops more resilient against environmental stresses including drought and disease, while reducing the need for irrigation and chemical treatments such as pesticides, fungicides and fertilizers. In the BIG Collaboration, she will work alongside College of Engineering Associate Professor Doug Call to aid the development of advanced enzyme systems for ammonia production.

While the CCRP project is helping us understand how we can harness the plant microbiome to reduce the application of fertilizers on cropland, the BIG Collaboration provides the opportunity to address the challenge of unsustainable fertilizer use from a new direction,” said Grunden. “Through this latest project, we are exploring ways to develop more energy efficient enzyme-based ammonia production that, if scaled up, could make fertilizer production more sustainable,” said Grunden.

NNF has now awarded nearly $33 million to NC State across ten disciplines. The partnership is advancing student and faculty development and driving new innovations. In addition to the $8 million grant to support Grunden’s CCRP, NNF funded $18 million to NC State to lead the Accelerated Innovation in Manufacturing Biologics (AIM-Bio) project –– with the goal of improving global manufacturing processes and to train the next generation of scientists and engineers.

“Looking ahead at future opportunities, the partnership with NNF offers tremendous potential,” said Mark Schmidt, NC State’s associate vice chancellor for partnerships. “We look forward to continuing our work together to tackle global challenges by developing new research-based solutions.”

The five-year BIG Collaboration will prepare students for careers where they can make a significant impact on greenhouse gas emissions and support the bio economy. Carbon management is a rapidly growing field, creating high demand for skilled scientists with experience advancing these technologies.

The project team is actively recruiting Ph.D. students and postdocs for the project.

About the Novo Nordisk Foundation

Established in Denmark in 1924, the Novo Nordisk Foundation is an enterprise foundation with philanthropic objectives. The vision of the Foundation is to improve people’s health and the sustainability of society and the planet. The Foundation’s mission is to progress research and innovation in the prevention and treatment of cardiometabolic and infectious diseases as well as to advance knowledge and solutions to support a green transformation of society.

About Technical University of Denmark

Founded in 1829 with the mission of creating societal benefit, DTU is a top international technical university where education and innovation are built on a foundation of world-class research. DTU is at the academic and multidisciplinary forefront of the technical and the natural sciences with new initiatives in a number of engineering disciplines, including sustainable energy technology and life science.

This post was originally published in NC State News.