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Anthony L. Pometto III, Hans van Leeuwen and Mary Rasmussen (left to right) are the prize winning research team from the Iowa State University that came up with the new fungi method. Also contributing but not pictured is Samir Khanal, a former Iowa State research assistant professor, currently at the University of Hawai'i at Manoa.  (Source: Iowa State University, Bob Elbert)
New myco-technology promises to lower production costs by as much as third.

Ethanol production has been blasted by everyone from academia to the UN for its undesirable effect of raising food crop prices.  However, while researchers try to develop new production methods that don't use sugar crops; the current infrastructure chugs along producing more and more corn based ethanol daily.  Barring a dramatic change of course, it seems unlikely that the growth of corn ethanol will stop in the short term.

Thus, while it may not be the best solution, technology such as a new fungal improvement to processing developed by Iowa State still do some good.  The new research was also assisted by researchers at the University of Hawai'i.  It involves growing fungi in leftovers of ethanol production.  The process saves energy, helps recycle more water, and produces higher quality livestock feed, which is a byproduct of the processing.

Hans van Leeuwen, an Iowa State professor of civil, construction and environmental engineering and the leader of the research project states, "The process could change ethanol production in dry-grind plants so much that energy costs can be reduced by as much as one-third."

The rest of the Leeuwen's team is comprised of Anthony L. Pometto III, a professor of food science and human nutrition; Mary Rasmussen, a graduate student in environmental engineering and bio-renewable resources and technology; and Samir Khanal, a former Iowa State research assistant professor who currently is an assistant professor of molecular biosciences and bioengineering at the University of Hawaii at Manoa.  The team won the 2008 Grand Prize for University Research from the American Academy of Environmental Engineers for the research.

The prize was awarded based on merit of research in environmental fields.  The AAEE describes the selection process thusly: "Those chosen for prizes by an independent panel of distinguished experts address the broad range of modern challenges inherent in providing life-nurturing services for humans and protection of the environment.  ... Their innovations and performance illustrate the essential role of environmental engineers in providing a healthy planet."

The Iowa research seeks to fine tune dry-grind ethanol production.  In this type of production, raw corn is ground and then water and enzymes are added.  The enzymes act to break down the corn's starch, into sugars, which are processed by added yeast.  The yeast produces the end product -- ethanol -- through fermentation.  Distillation follows to harvest the ethanol.

For every gallon of fuel recovered, there are approximately six gallons of waste known as stillage.  The brothy waste is rich in organic solids and other organic compounds.  These compounds are harvested by centrifugation and dried; yielding livestock feed known as distillers dried grains.

The leftover stillage contains some smaller solids.  This type of stillage is known as thin stillage.  Typically only a small percentage of this stillage, which contains valuable water and enzymes, can be reused in the production process.  The rest is evaporated and the leftovers are mixed with distillers dried grains to form distillers dried grains with solubles.  The downside is that water and expensive enzymes are lost in the process.

The researchers mixed in a special fungus, Rhizopus microsporus, into the thin stillage.  The fungus thrived off the organic material and was found to remove 80 percent of the organic material from the water, allowing much more of the thin stillage (and thus the water and enzymes) to be recycled.

The leftover fungus hold superior nutrition value and can be harvested for livestock feed.  It’s loaded with protein, amino acids, and other nutrients.  It can be sold as a supplement individually or sold blended with distillers dried grains for a higher rate.  Such feed is suitable for animals like hogs and chickens, which typical distillers dried grains are not as good for.

With the current infrastructure Leeuwen states that the elimination of evaporation of thin stillage would result in a cost savings of $800M yearly.  Furthermore, the process would save $60M per year in enzymes and would reduce the industry's water load by 10B gallons per year.  And there would be more profit, with the nutrient rich fungi feed bringing in almost $400M more yearly.  The overall energy balance of production (and thus efficiency) would also be improved by lowering the inputs needed.

You don't find many investments like this -- the process could be implemented for only $11M in a plant that produces 100M gallons yearly, and it would pay for itself within six months.

The project is funded by grants of $78,806 from the Grow Iowa Values Fund, a state economic development program, and $80,000 from the U.S. Department of Agriculture through the Iowa Biotechnology Byproducts Consortium.

The researchers have filed for a patent on the new method and are currently looking for investors to help bring it to market.  The bottom line Professor Pometto says is getting the technology out there as fast as possible and improving the struggling industry.  He states, "We will be saving ethanol producers money and energy.  That's the bottom line."

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RE: fuel made of corn : nonsense
By BikeDude on 5/29/2008 5:06:50 AM , Rating: 0
I am totally against it. Fertile soil and crops must be used for food and forest must be left alone.

In the 80s and 90s, a lot of farmer's were paid to abandon growing anything on their lands. The price of grain plummeted, and only recently (last year) has the price _started_ to climb again. It is still nowhere near the level it used to be.

This price increase will hopefully mean more farmers will be back in the loop.

If you really want to get upset, then look at the way dairy farmers in the EU produce an insane amount of milk, which is then sold off as powdered milk to third world countries. Dairy farmers in the "target" countries are then unable to compete, and the local market for fresh milk collapses, unable to compete with genetically modified supercows in Europe (heavily subsidized by the EU).

Shipping food items between continents have, in many cases, proved to be a disaster. If you've eaten rice your whole life, then you might have huge issues digesting milk-based products e.g.

But back to ethanol: It gives many farmers the option to continue growing something, where in other cases they'd be forced to ditch their whole farm. And yes, the prices of food will probably continue to rise for a while, but so does oil! If the price of fuel continue to increase, how are you going to ship all that cheap food around?

The Swedes are experimenting with turning forrests into ethanol. If successful, this would really help make ethanol a huge success, at least in countries with trees in them. As technology advances, this could really be the way forward.

But for now, farmers are, for the first time in a very long time, able to grow and sell a product without much subsidies from the government.

Bottom line though: This planet is able to support a population of x billion people. We can continue to tweak our food production to temporarily raise this number to x+y billion. Fine, but eventually the shit is going to hit the fan. It is much easier to cull the number of people while we're still x billion, rather than wait for x+y. (this is what I fear anyway, YMMV)

RE: fuel made of corn : nonsense
By masher2 on 5/29/2008 9:59:43 AM , Rating: 2
> "But for now, farmers are, for the first time in a very long time, able to grow and sell a product without much subsidies from the government."

Err, the entire ethanol market exists only due to government subsidies and mandates...and the amount of such government aid just keeps rising.

> "This planet is able to support a population of x billion people. We can continue to tweak our food production to temporarily raise this number to x+y billion.."

If you're suggesting the planet is already above the carrying capacity of human population, you're incorrect. By the simply extension of First-world farming technology and efficiency to the Third world, the planet can feed some 20-30 billion people. Assume technological progress, and it can be much higher than that.

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