Indonesia (Fulbright S&T awardee 2011)
Wasti Nurani is pursuing doctoral degree in the field of Cellular and Molecular Bioengineering at the University of California, Los Angeles. Her research focuses on creating bacteria which are able to use electricity in converting CO2 into higher alcohols, which are similar to those found in gasoline.
Wasti developed her passion for biofuels during her time as an undergraduate. For her final undergraduate project, she worked on improving the efficiency of tapioca-to-ethanol conversion by characterizing all starch-degrading enzymes made by native fungus. Later from her literature review, she learned that ethanol is actually for drinking, not driving. This 2-carbon alcohol is corrosive and of lower energy content to gasoline; using bioethanol means constructing novel vehicles and distribution infrastructure costing hundreds of billions of dollars. To compound the problem, bioethonol is largely produced from corn and sugarcane, crops which demand large amounts of land, water, and fertilizer, which, in turn, creates high production costs, conflict over land, and a loss of biodiversity.
While working as an English-speaking Biology teacher following her graduation, Wasti heard that with the help of Systems- and Synthetic-Biology, people can force bacteria to perform non-natural tasks such as producing higher alcohol content. However, the photosynthetic bacteria must be spread out over a large area for light capture. Upon learning about this, Wasti wishes to engineer the bacteria so they can be powered by electricity. This process is not only improves efficiency ten times greater than the current liquid-fuel production approach, but it also solves storage problem of electricity from renewable source, including sunlight and natural gas, which are abundant in nature.