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Process promises 10 fold increase in simple sugar production from non-food crops

As scientists all around the world look for alternatives to oil for fuel, several options have materialized. Electricity has a significant amount of support behind it, but for many drivers an electric vehicle isn't a real option due to the extremely limited range current battery technology can provide.

One of the few fuel alternatives not based on oil that is currently in use in relatively large quantities is ethanol. Many of the fueling stations around the U.S. now have stickers on pumps that say the gasoline is mixed with 10% ethanol. Large portions of General Motor's vehicles are already capable of running on 85% ethanol.

The problem with the mass production of ethanol is that the crops most suited to making ethanol -- corn, potatoes, and sugar cane -- are also food crops that are needed to feed people in many developing parts of the world. Another problem is that production costs for ethanol using these food crops vary with the price of the food crops. Another fear is that in areas where the amount of land for growing food crops is limited, the amount of crops grown that need to go to human consumption could be greatly reduced leading to increased food shortages around the world.

For these reasons, significant resources have been dedicated to finding other renewable plant sources for ethanol not based on food crops. Cellulosic ethanol production is one source of ethanol not based on food crops and could possibly produce ethanol for as little as $1 per gallon. One startup company, called LS9, has claimed it has developed a process that uses bacteria to produce synthetic gas using biowaste and weeds.

The University of Georgia (UGA) announced that a team of researchers at the university has developed a new technology that could greatly increase the yield of ethanol produced from non-food crops like Bermudagrass, switchgrass, Napiergrass and possibly even clippings from lawns.

According to UGA, its process uses a fast, mild, and acid-free pretreatment process to increase the amount of simple sugars released by inexpensive biomass by a factor of ten. UGA also says that corn stover or bagasse -- the waste material left behind after corn and sugar cane harvests -- can be used to produce ethanol with its process.

Professor of microbiology and chair of UGA's Bioenergy Task Force, Joy Peterson said in a statement, "Producing ethanol from renewable biomass sources such as grasses is desirable because they are potentially available in large quantities. Optimizing the breakdown of the plant fibers is critical to production of liquid transportation fuel via fermentation.”

The researchers say that the same plant materials used to produce ethanol in its process can be used to produce ethanol with other processes commonly used today. However, the process typically needed to convert the fibrous stalks, leaves, and blades of plant wastes into simple sugars requires soaking under high pressure and high temperatures. The process produces hazardous solutions and byproducts that must be removed and disposed of safely.

The UGA researchers say that their process is environmentally friendly and removes the harsh pre-treatment chemicals and the need to dispose of the harsh chemicals and side products produced using traditional methods.

Gennaro Gama, UGARF technology manager in charge of licensing the UGA technology said, "By allowing for the use of myriad raw materials, this technology allows more options for ethanol facilities trying to meet nearby demand by using locally available, inexpensive starting materials. This would greatly reduce the costs and carbon footprint associated with the delivery of raw materials to fermentation facilities and the subsequent delivery of ethanol to points of sale. Local production of ethanol may also protect specific areas against speculative fluctuations in fuel prices."

Gama added, "It’s easy to imagine that this easy-to-use, inexpensive technology could be used by local governments, alone or in partnership with entrepreneurs, to meet local demand for ethanol, possibly using yard waste as a substrate."

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By jbartabas on 7/30/2008 7:06:17 PM , Rating: 1
It's grown primarily in 5 states all located in the Midwest, so to reach the heavy populations on the coast you have to transport it oh let's see around 1500 miles and most likely by trains, barges, and DIESEL-powered trucks. But wait what about diesel-ethanol trucks??

Did you actually read the article or you just stopped at the title?

Oh, and it's a detail but ethanol is not grown, no more than electricity comes out of your wall ...

By rubbahbandman on 7/31/2008 2:51:40 PM , Rating: 2
Oh, and it's a detail but ethanol is not grown, no more than electricity comes out of your wall ...

Thanks for the red herring, ok the crops grown for fuel usage if that statement can make it past your ignorance... Care to dispute any of the real issues related to ethanol? Until they solve the transportation issue, ethanol will continue to fail as an effective alternative energy.

The article even states it is for local demand (likely due to transportation issues) not to mention this "local demand for ethanol" will not impact any of the big coastal cities in a meaningful way.

By mindless1 on 8/2/2008 4:58:04 PM , Rating: 2
Care to dispute any of the real issues related to ethanol?

Ok. Ethanol is already being transported and used in gasoline. If we need new pipelines we managed to create them once, it can be done again.

You wrote that it's only grown in 5 states but what was the point of this news article? That there may be new sources grown elsewhere. We don't have to entirely replace gasoline, any amount of ethanol used could be of benefit in reducing gas consumption and lowering prices IF the conversion of more plants and plant wastes is viable.

You write about trucks, trains, as if they are a problem. It's exactly the opposite, that they already exist, the infrastructure to do it is existing tech even if it needs expansion. We manage to transport everything else, it would be silly to think any fuel just falls out of the sky into a funnel positioned over your car's gas tank.

Ethanol is a real viable alternative today, simply using more of it in the gas we use for the years until more and more vehicles are multi-fuel capable, instead of trying to switch suddenly from all gas to mostly ethanol.

Big coastal cities have to have their food brought in. Same goes for plants and plant waste converted to ethanol. Same goes for gasoline. There's not so much difference except in how much farmland is available but let's face it, there is a lot of land in the US that is capable of producing certain grasses and other plants that don't need a lot of water. Don't you even realize that every city could have an ethanol refinery? Less, not more transportation than involved with oil then gasoline when you consider a lot of the waste that had to be transported either way.

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