Wisconsin, Michigan Researchers Partner on Non-Food Biofuels

2/14/14Follow @XconomyDET

According to a December report in the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, Patricia Dehmer, chief science officer for the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE), was recently asked to name a program funded by her office that was producing tangible results. Her response? Madison’s Great Lakes Bioenergy Research Center (GLBRC) and five other similar research centers across the nation.

The GLBRC was one of three bioenergy research centers established by the DOE in 2007. More than 400 scientists, researchers, and staff work on GLBRC projects, and officials at the center point to that work as an example of how collaboration between academic, federal, and private sector scientists can lead to breakthrough research.

Housed at the Wisconsin Energy Institute, the GLBRC is a partnership between the University of Wisconsin-Madison and Michigan State University in East Lansing, MI. Steven Slater, the GLBRC’s scientific programs manager, says even though the center’s research is carried out on two separate campuses, it operates as a single unit. “We don’t worry about which campus does what,” he explains. “We’re sort of a center without borders.”

The GLBRC’s mission, according to Slater, is to perform the basic, early-stage research that generates technology to convert cellulosic biomass to ethanol and other advanced biofuels, and then pass that research to industry for commercialization.

Turning non-food cellulosic materials into fuel has proven to be an expensive, hard-to-scale task, but Slater feels that the GLBRC’s public and private collaborations—industry partners include DuPont, General Motors, and Miller Brewing—put it at the forefront of commercialization efforts.

Last month, a GLBRC research team published its findings in the journal Science, explaining how they use a compound called gamma-Valerolactone to deconstruct plants and produce sugars that can be chemically or biologically upgraded into biofuels. With support from the Wisconsin Alumni Research Foundation (WARF), the team will begin scaling up the process later this year.

Slater believes the key to bringing biofuels to market is lowering the cost of production. The center is targeting raw, non-food, high-cellulose feedstocks like corn stover and switchgrass. Because of their relatively low density, it’s a challenge to transport these materials to refineries in an efficient manner.

“We need to minimize the environmental impact and find energy-efficient ways to harvest, collect, and deconstruct cellulose,” Slater says. “That’s not industry’s job. They do need to understand the environmental impact, and companies do spend time looking at that, but we’re in a better position to collect that data.”

The main problems the GLBRC is working to solve is a way to “densify” cellulosic materials close to where they’re grown, and an inexpensive way to break down, or deconstruct, the plant materials so the sugars inside can be accessed for fermentation on their way to becoming biofuel.

Bruce Dale, a biochemical engineering professor at MSU, directs the GLBRC’s research on deconstruction. He’s experimenting with pre-treating cellulosic materials with ammonia so they can be deconstructed more easily. “Mother Nature didn’t make cellulose easy to break down,” Dale explains. “We use heat, chemicals, or energy to break open the plant cell wall to access sugars easier and make fuels out of non-food plant material.”

Commercial biofuel from non-food sources is already available in a few places, like Europe, but not yet in the United States. The “big gorilla in the room,” Slater says, is Brazil, which already produces a large amount of its fuel from homegrown sugar cane. The United States wants to be competitive with Brazil in the world biofuels market, which is one reason the DOE recently renewed its funding of the bioenergy research centers through 2017.

Most of the ethanol that’s added to gasoline in the United States is made from corn, which is easy to transport. But harvesting food crops for use as fuel can wreak havoc on commodities markets, and economists don’t see corn-based ethanol as a sustainable replacement for petroleum. However, Slater believes the U.S. is just a few years away from putting fuel derived from non-food biomass on the market.

“In the next five years, I believe [non-food-based biofuel] will become more prevalent in the U.S. market,” Slater adds. “But transportation and getting sufficient supplies to processing facilities will still be an issue after we figure out the technical challenge of deconstructing biomass, which we’re close to doing.”

Sarah Schmid is the editor of Xconomy Detroit. You can reach her at 313-570-9823 or sschmid@xconomy.com. Follow @XconomyDET

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