Turning Plant Matter into Fuel

14.10.14

 

 

A University of California, Riverside professor in the Chemical and Environmental Engineering Department edited a recently published book that provides in-depth information on aqueous processing of cellulosic biomass, which includes wood, grasses, and agricultural and forestry residues, for conversion into fuels.

Charles Wyman, who also holds the Ford Motor Company Chair in Environmental Engineering in the Center for Environmental Research and Technology (CE-CERT) of the UC Riverside Bourns College of Engineering, led the development of the book “Aqueous Pretreatment of Plant Biomass for Biological and Chemical Conversion to Fuels and Chemicals.” In 2010, he was named by BiofuelsDigest as one of the Top 100 People in Bioenergy. The book, published by John Wiley & Sons, contains 23 chapters written by experts from throughout the country.

Funding by the BioEnergy Science Center (BESC), a U.S. Department of Energy Bioenergy Research Center supported by the Office of Biological and Environmental Research in the DOE Office of Science, was instrumental to making the book possible.

Charles Wyman’s passion for renewable energy was first expressed through a junior high school science fair project focused on solar energy storage. It grew as he earned a Ph.D. in chemical engineering at Princeton, became a leader in biomass conversion at the Solar Energy Research Institute, now known as the National Renewable Energy Laboratory, and as an endowed professor at Dartmouth College.

In 1996, during his tenure at National Renewable Energy Laboratory, he edited the book Handbook on Bioethanol: Production and Utilization. He also co-founded Mascoma Corporation, a startup company focused on advanced technology for biomass conversion to ethanol, in 2005.

The just-published book focuses on aqueous pretreatment of cellulosic biomass to promote sugar release for biological, catalytic, or thermochemical conversion into fuels and chemicals.

Introductory chapters provide the rationale for converting biomass to fuels; its importance to national security, balance of trade, and the environment; and insights into biological and catalytic processing to fuels. Also included are in-depth information on the chemistry and biology of cellulosic biomass, leading pretreatments to facilitate its biological and chemical conversion to sugars, and methods important to assess the effectiveness of biomass conversion technologies.

In recent decades, interest in converting cellulosic biomass to fuels has closely tracked the price of petroleum: support jumps when petroleum prices are high and wanes when prices drop.

“That creates a big challenge,” Wyman said. “The volatility of oil prices and associated enthusiasm for alternatives results in a very unstable environment in which to build a business.”

Yet, cellulosic biomass conversion has unique and powerful benefits.

It has the potential to substantially reduce greenhouse gas emissions and imported petroleum dependence and is widely available and inexpensive. For example, cellulosic biomass costing $60 per dry ton has about the same cost per energy content as petroleum at about $20 per barrel.

“The challenge is, and has always been, reducing the cost of breaking down cellulosic biomass into sugars and other fuel precursors that can be converted into products, and aqueous pretreatment plays a pivotal role for leading biological, catalytic, and thermochemical routes” Wyman said.

The Bourns College of Engineering-Center for Environmental Research and Technology (CE-CERT) is scheduled to receive more than $3 million in funding for biofuels research, the U.S. Department of Energy announced recently.

The funding is the result of Congressional approval for continued funding of the BioEnergy Science Center (BESC) led by Oak Ridge National Laboratory.  BESC is one of three bioenergy research centers established by the DOE’s Office of Science in 2007 to accelerate progress toward a viable biofuels market based on cellulosic feedstocks. CE-CERT has been one of the BESC’s 17 institutional partners since 2007 and will receive $629,000 per year over the next five years to continue its biofuels research as a result of this renewal.

While ethanol can be produced from corn, its use as a fuel source is limited because it is also a food crop and requires considerable energy to produce and harvest. Cellulosic biomass sources such as poplar wood and switchgrass are abundant and renewable because they come from non-food sources and can include plant-based waste product.

“BESC is a great group to work with and provides excellent training for our graduate students as they collaborate with leaders in the field from across the country,” Wyman said.

In 2011, a research team led by Wyman published the paper, “Lignin content in natural Populus variants affects sugar release,” in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences that described results of their work in understanding the chemical factors affecting how sugars are released from fast growing poplar wood that can be used to produce biofuels. Lignin serves as a major roadblock for biofuels production because it forms strong bonds with sugars and interferes with access to these carbohydrates, making it difficult to extract the plant’s sugars contained in cellulose and hemicellulose for conversion to transportation fuels.

“The real driver for bioenergy is how to get sugar as cheaply as possible from these recalcitrant materials,” Wyman said. “We’re looking to identify traits in poplar and switchgrass that will lead to better sugar release.”

“Developing the next generation of American biofuels will enhance our national energy security, expand the domestic biofuels industry, and produce new clean energy jobs. It will help America’s farmers and create vast new opportunities for wealth creation in rural communities,” said Energy Secretary Steven Chu in the DOE announcement of the funding. “By investing in innovative approaches and technologies at our Bioenergy Research Centers, we can continue to move the biofuels industry forward and grow our economy while reducing our reliance on foreign oil.”

 

Author: Sean Nealon

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