Researchers develop fermentation process to produce biofuels from waste biomass

UMD researchers (not pictured) have developed a fermentation process that can produce renewable fuels from crops, waste biomass, or gases(Credit: Shutterstock)

Imagine a world where vehicles run on beer. Some might think of this as a devastating waste of good hops, but a University of Maryland (UMD) team sees a lot of promise for the idea. The team has been awarded a patent for a process that uses natural microorganisms to ferment biomass or gases into hydrocarbons. In short, they've figured out how to brew gasoline naturally.

The inventors, Professor Richard Kohn and Faculty Research Associate Dr. Seon-Woo Kim, are at the University of Maryland, had been awarded a patent for microorganisms that are ethanol-tolerant and which produce ethanol from biomass materials. The team has now been awarded a similar patent for the same process, but producing hexane and octane, the core ingredients of gasoline. In both cases, the fuels separate from the biomass and rise to the surface of a fermentation broth.

The two have worked to isolate and breed microorganisms that convert cellulostic biomass or gaseous CO2 and H2 into biofuels that include ethanol, 1-butanol, butane, or hexane. Cellulostic biomass can be any of a number of leftovers from living plant resources (trees, grain production, etc.) and are common biodegradable byproducts in manufacturing. The production of corn, for example, produces many tons of corn stalks and the production of lumber produces many tons of chips and sawdust.

The UMD team developed microorganisms that thrive on carbon dioxide, which is a byproduct of many agri-industrial processes. The fermentation process for producing fuel has been difficult to develop, but is much more energy-efficient and cost-effective over the long term than is the more common process currently used to distill corn grain and other feedstocks into ethanol. In the process created by the UMD team, microorganisms feed on hydrogen and CO2 (or biomass) and excrete hexane or octane.

The inventors, who published their work in the Journal of Theoretical Biology, hope to further improve their process, but will need to secure more funding to do so.

Sources:
U.S. Patent and Trademark Office Nos 9,217,161 and 9,193,979

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