Synthetic Biological Techniques for Energetic Materials

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Current practices used to create military-critical energetic materials rely heavily on petroleum-based starting materials, as well as foreign sources. These practices are highly polluting and utilize inefficient chemical pathways. The ability to create energetic compounds and their precursors from renewable sources with an environmentally benign bioprocess would greatly benefit the U.S. Department of Defense (DoD). An improved, environmentally responsible synthesis process would eliminate high volatile organic compound (VOC) solvents, heavy metal catalysts, and toxic chemicals, which will reduce hazardous wastes and byproducts. These new processes are also expected to increase product yields.

SERDP is currently funding two efforts aimed at developing environmentally benign bioprocesses for energetic materials. The project WP-2332, led by Dr. David Graham at Oak Ridge National Laboratory, is focused on identifying and characterizing new bionitration enzymes from bacteria capable of producing nitro compounds with structural similarity to energetic chemicals. Growth experiments will optimize natural product production, and stable isotope-labeled compounds will be used to infer biosynthetic precursors and proposed pathways. These biocatalysts will be components of future synthetic biology processes to produce nitro groups of energetic materials. SERDP project WP-2333, led by Dr. Mark Fuller at CB&I, is applying the tools and techniques of synthetic biology to create a biocatalyst for the production of high purity biocellulose (BC) and to develop a scalable process for producing this material. Metabolic modeling will be used to identify genetic targets that can be manipulated to optimize carbon and energy flow to enhance BC yields. The BC will subsequently be formulated into military grade nitrocellulose to evaluate its characteristics and conformity to military specifications.

Each project will contribute to a more sustainable and environmentally friendly DoD that reduces U.S. reliance on petroleum-based starting materials or foreign sources for manufacturing energetic materials. The DoD and manufacturers of energetic materials will be able to utilize these innovative processes to reduce the environmental impacts of energetic chemical production while also being cost-effective. The outcomes of these projects will advance the scientific knowledge regarding biosynthetic technology and contribute to future developments in this new field.

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