Baylor Awarded $373,000 for Ethanol Research

Aug. 25, 2005

Environmental scientists, chemists seeking ways to make ethanol from wood fiber

by Judy Long (254) 710-4656

As the country grapples with record-high oil and gasoline prices, Baylor University researchers have been awarded a $373,000 research grant from the Department of Agriculture to make fuel-grade ethanol out of fiber using cornstalks and hard and soft wood.

Dr. Peter Van Walsum, assistant professor of environmental studies, and Dr. Kevin Chambliss, assistant professor of chemistry and biochemistry, received the grant last week after successfully completing a two-year preliminary study earlier this year.

Examining the use of fiber is part of a growing trend to find more economical ways to produce ethanol, as the market moves toward renewable biomass energy sources and away from fossil fuels. Van Walsum said Baylor researchers are looking into the pre-treatment of wood and grass fiber in the process of making ethanol.

Van Walsum said the process of turning biomass into ethanol involves three steps: 1) pre-treatment, or the cooking step, 2) liquefying the fiber into sugars, and 3) fermenting the sugars into ethanol.

"We are working on the first step, to see how the unintended products affect the second and third steps," Van Walsum said.

Essentially, researchers are pre-treating or cooking fiber in different solutions--acids, alkalines and neutrals--and looking for by-products of the cooking process. Some minor by-products may have market value, or they could find an environmental problem they would have to address. Cooking softens the fiber, making the conversion to ethanol easier.

The research will examine the results with cornstalks, poplar and spruce. The cornstalks will reveal how grass fiber can be expected to respond to the process, poplar will show what hardwoods will do, and spruce will reveal how soft woods will work in the production process.

"It's detailed work involving a lot of chemistry," Van Walsum added.

On Aug. 8, President Bush signed The Energy Policy Act of 2005, which included an ethanol mandate requiring fuel manufacturers to use 7.5 billion gallons of ethanol in gasoline by 2012 - a move that will reduce oil consumption by 80,000 barrels of oil a day by 2012, according to Energy Information Administration.

At the bill-signing ceremony in New Mexico, the President said the bill includes a "flexible, cost-effective renewable fuel standard that will double the amount of ethanol and biodiesel in our fuel supply over the next seven years."

"Using ethanol and biodiesel will leave our air cleaner. And every time we use a home-grown fuel, particularly these, we're going to be helping our farmers, and at the same time, be less dependent on foreign sources of energy," Mr. Bush said.

Texas Sen. John Cornyn also was pleased to see the USDA fund the Baylor research effort.

"We need to make sure that we have the tools to effectively meet our country's growing energy needs," Sen. Cornyn said. "And it's critical that we seek innovative ways to diversify our use of renewable energy sources."

For more information, contact Van Walsum at (254) 710-6552.

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