Sugar-Based Biofuels Are On Their Way: Renewable Chemical Facilitates Quicker, Cheaper Biofuel Production

on January 16, 2014 2:25 PM EST

Biofuel
Researchers claim a new method of generating biofuels is cheap enough to be viable for ramping up production for commercial use. (Photo: Shutterstock)

Researchers at the University of Wisconsin, Madison have discovered a process of producing cheap and reusable biofuels out of a concentrated stream of sugar. The research findings will be published in the January 17, 2014 issue of the Journal Science. In the study, the researchers report using gamma valerolactone or GVL, to deconstruct plants and produce sugars that they know are biologically upgradable to biofuels.

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Traditional conversion methods require the use of expensive enzymes and chemicals, but GVL is renewable and affordable because it is created from the plant material. The method is also highly efficient: it can convert 85 to 95 percent of the starting material to sugars. The sugars can then be used to feed yeast for fermentation into ethanol or chemically upgraded furans to create biofuels.

The sugar platform, according to Dr. Jeremy Luterbacher, a UW postdoctoral researcher and the paper's lead author, is highly advantageous. "You've taken fewer forks down the conversion road, which leaves you with more end destinations, such as cellulosic ethanol and dropin biofuels," he said in a press release.

Most often biofuels are economically and environmentally unviable as the process to create them often uses more energy than it delivers. However, this research promises to be different. Luterbacher and his team were able to concentrate the sugar, remove the GVL for reuse, and showed that yeast could successfully generate ethanol.

"Showing that removing and recycling GVL can be done easily, with a low energy separation step, is a little more of an achievement," Luterbacher said. "By feeding the resulting sugar solution to microorganisms, we proved we weren't producing some weird chemical byproducts that would kill the yeast, and that we were taking out enough GVL to make it nontoxic."

In order to remove the GVL from the fuel, the researchers used an additive that could, according to Luterbacher, separate the two elements like oil and vinegar. The researchers happily reported that the additive (liquid carbon dioxide) is also healthy and sustainable. "It's green, nontoxic and can be removed by simple depressurization once you want GVL and solutions of sugar to mix again. It's the perfect additive," Luterbacher said.

The study claims that there is real commercial potential for GVL. The research was funded by the National Science Foundation and the U.S. Department of Energy's Great Lakes Bioenergy Research Center (GLBRC), and the hope is that the findings will help lead to a more rapid licensing of high potential biofuel-generatin technologies. 

Biofuel image above via Shutterstock.

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