Baylor Researchers Finish One Phase Of Ethanol Analysis, Start Another

Feb. 8, 2006

As Americans deal with higher prices at the pump, ethanol has emerged as the front-runner to help reduce the country's "addiction to oil". President Bush's new budget proposal even calls for a $59 million dollar increase in ethanol research. But while the high cost of producing ethanol stands as the major hurdle, research is already underway at Baylor University to find ways to make the biofuel cheaper to produce.

Dr. Kevin Chambliss, a Baylor chemistry assistant professor, and Dr. Peter Van Walsum, a Baylor environmental studies associate professor, have teamed up to study the by-products that are created when making cellulosic ethanol. The researchers said Baylor is one of only a handful of universities in the world conducting this type of analysis.

"What we hope to understand are some basic scientific principles that will let us direct the development of more efficient processing schemes and ultimately lower prices at the pump," Chambliss explained.

While conventional ethanol and cellulosic ethanol are essentially the same product, the two are made from different feedstocks. Conventional ethanol is produced from grains such as corn and wheat. Cellulosic ethanol is made from the non-food portion of many agricultural wastes. One of the more common wastes used is corn stover, which are the stalks and residue left over after harvest. Van Walsum said there has been a recent emphasis on learning more about cellulosic ethanol because agricultural wastes are mostly an untapped resource.

"We have enough agricultural waste to start, but we don't have enough waste to offset oil use. That would take using all the agricultural wastes available and intentionally growing crops for the waste," Van Walsum said.

There are three main steps to make cellulosic ethanol: 1) the agricultural waste is first cooked, which is called pretreatment, 2) the fiber is then liquefied into sugars, and 3) the sugars are fermented into ethanol.

Specifically, Baylor researchers are studying the by-products created in the pretreatment step and how those by-products may restrict the fermenting process. The inhibitory by-products are largely to blame for the current high cost of producing cellulosic ethanol. Ultimately, researchers hope to learn how to minimize the inhibitory by-products, while at the same time not compromising the production of sugars.

"The main reason that we don't use ethanol now isn't because our car engines won't run it. Our cars can use it just fine. It's because we haven't been able to make the production of ethanol cost-competitive to petroleum," Chambliss said.

Funded by a grant from the Department of Agriculture, Chambliss and Van Walsum pre-treat, or cook, the feedstock in different solutions--acids, alkalines and neutrals. The researchers then look for the by-products that are created from each solution. Some of the by-products include organic acids and lignin decomposition products among dozens of others.

Chambliss and Van Walsum have nearly completed identifying many of the by-products of corn stover and will now start studying poplar to see what by-products that feedstock creates. Van Walsum said poplar will show how hardwoods will react. Spruce, which will show how softwoods will respond, also will be studied.

"What we found with corn stover is that we don't know very much about it," Van Walsum explained. "We found that the equations everybody has been using for the past 15 years are relatively poor at representing the actual chemistry that is going on."

The research is expected to take two more years to complete. Chambliss and Van Walsum present their findings on an annual basis at conferences across the country.

"This is brute-force science. It's largely grunt work, but the end results could have world-wide impact," Chambliss said.

Media contact: Frank Raczkiewicz, (254) 710-1964

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