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US biofuels centre shifts focus to second gen products

The Memorial Union and quadrangle at the University of Wisconsin-Madison (Wikimedia Commons/Vonbloompasha).
The Memorial Union and quadrangle at the University of Wisconsin-Madison (Wikimedia Commons/Vonbloompasha).

The Great Lakes Bioenergy Research Center (GLBRC) based out of the University of Wisconsin-Madison (UW-Madison) is moving from the development of crop-based ethanol to creating fuels and chemicals that are fungible with their petroleum-based equivalents.

The change was announced at the annual meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science in Austin, Texas by the centre’s director and professor at UW-Madison, Tim Donohue. The development of so-called ‘drop in’ fuels has significant advantages over ethanol, as they do not require blending with fossil fuels and can be used wholesale with an engine originally intended to be fuelled with gasoline or diesel.

As well as these fungible fuels, the centre will look at optimising the ‘field-to-product pipeline’ by generating multiple products from plant biomass. This is meant to improve process efficiency and make that process more cost effective.

If successful, the centre will help supplant petroleum-based by-products that go into a variety of goods with bio-based equivalents.

“We’re trying to re-task native pathways and engineer next-generation microbial factories that can manufacture valuable fuels and chemicals from renewable wastes,” Donohue said in a statement.

James Dumesic, a GLBRC researcher and UW-Madison professor noted in a press release that the centre has already made progress by using a chemical derived from woody biomass, called gamma valeroactone to assist in the extraction of sugars in that same biomass for enhanced fermentation.

Researchers at the centre are also looking to improve yields by creating bioenergy crops that can grow on non-agricultural land, which they say can benefit the ecosystem, help mitigate climate change and give farmers and extra source of income.

The Great Lakes Bioenergy Research Center was created by the US Department of Energy in 2007 to study sustainable cropping systems, efficient biomass conversion and field-to-product integration. According to Donohue, “[t]he result was almost 1,100 publications, 154 invention disclosures, 168 U.S. and international patents applications 89 licenses and options and five start-up companies relating to improved biomass crops, plant deconstruction and the development of next generation catalysts and microbes for conversion.” 

The Memorial Union and quadrangle at the University of Wisconsin-Madison (Wikimedia Commons/Vonbloompasha).