While the biofuels industry is facing challenging times right now, it is important not to lose sight of the research being conducted to further reduce biofuel production costs. The research advances being made today in both the public and private sectors will help meet America’s goals to become more energy independent. Here are just a few examples:
New Bioprocessing Technology Called a “Breakthrough”
Consolidated bioprocessing, CBP, is being called a breakthrough. Developed by Mascoma Corporation, Lebanon, NH (www.mascoma.com), CBP uses engineered microorganisms that produce cellulases and ethanol from cellulosic biomass at high yields in a single step.
“Many had thought that CBP was years or even decades away, but the future just arrived. Mascoma has permanently changed the biofuels landscape from here on,” said Bruce Dale, distinguished professor of chemical engineering and materials science at Michigan State University.
CBP is considered a low-cost technology for cellulose hydrolysis and fermentation. Mascoma’s technology utilizes bacteria that grow at high temperatures (thermophiles) and recombinant celluloytic yeasts.
“These advances enable the reduction in operating and capital costs required for cost-effective commercial production of ethanol,” said Jim Flatt, executive vice president of Research, Development and Operations at Mascoma.
New Purdue Research Center Could Help Double Amount of Fuel from Biomass
The Department of Energy plans to fund a $20 million effort to create a research center at Purdue University that will focus on converting biomass to biofuels and other bio-based products. The new Center for Direct Catalytic Conversion of Biomass to Biofuels, or C3Bio, will utilize new chemical catalysts and thermal treatments to produce fuels that resemble gasoline in terms of their molecular makeup and energy density, said Maureen McCann, Purdue associate professor of biological science who will lead the project.
The center will investigate methods to bypass biological fermentation, reducing the need for large biorefineries and expanding the range of biofuels beyond ethanol, Purdue reported.
Currently-used fermentation technologies are just 40-50 percent efficient in terms of the carbon atoms starting out in biomass and ending in fuel molecules, McCann said. “We think with different catalysts, the lignin could actually be used and converted to fuel molecules. If we can use the lignin, there is the potential to double the amount of fuel from each unit of biomass. That fuel could be more energy-dense, more similar to gasoline.”
McCann added that using chemical catalysts or a combination of catalysts with heat may make mobile hydrocarbon refineries possible. This could possibly allow taking the “refinery” to the field instead of having to transport biomass to another location.
Ceres and University of Georgia to Develop High-Yielding Switchgrass Varieties
Ceres, Inc. (www.ceres.net), Thousand Oaks, CA, and the University of Georgia are collaborating on a multi-year project to develop new high-yielding switchgrass seed varieties and improved management techniques for the southeastern United States.
The University of Georgia’s collection of switchgrass breeding materials and germplasm will be put to work. “By trialing and selecting new products in the middle of their target market, we can make greater gains more quickly and with greater certainty,” said Charles Brummer, University of Georgia plant breeder. In addition to work on varieties, researchers will evaluate seeding rates, row spacing, no-till planting recommendations and other crop management practices.
Ceres will have commercialization rights for varieties developed under this Ceres-funded project. Last December, Ceres introduced the first switchgrass and sorghum varieties targeted for bioenergy markets. They are sold under the company’s Blade Energy Crops brand (www.BladeEnergy.com).