Environment

Researchers develop fermentation process to produce biofuels from waste biomass

Researchers develop fermentati...
UMD researchers (not pictured) have developed a fermentation process that can produce renewable fuels from crops, waste biomass, or gases
UMD researchers (not pictured) have developed a fermentation process that can produce renewable fuels from crops, waste biomass, or gases
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UMD researchers (not pictured) have developed a fermentation process that can produce renewable fuels from crops, waste biomass, or gases
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UMD researchers (not pictured) have developed a fermentation process that can produce renewable fuels from crops, waste biomass, or gases

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: Journal of Theoretical Biology and U.S. Patent and Trademark Office Nos 9,217,161 and 9,193,979

10 comments
Smitty Jl
Lawn clippings, urban area tree management, farming and roadside vegetation clearing produce unimaginable amounts of bio waste annually. If this process works on these items afford-ably the energy crises would be pretty much licked. Problem then would be CO2 emissions from burning the resulting fuel.
Fretting Freddy the Ferret pressing the Fret
@Smitty JI There is a lot of potential in harnessing the energy from bio-mass residues for sure, but I very much doubt that it would be enough to solve any major energy crisis.
Like a lot of the other 'solutions', this technology needs to prove that it can scale up and be efficient in converting the bio-mass, or else it will never be price competitive.
Taking it a bit further, I don't like to think that one day food crops might be replaced by 'fuel' crops to feed these kinds of technology, once biomass residues aren't abundant enough.
"Problem then would be CO2 emissions from burning the resulting fuel."
No. The CO2 from these fuels come from a renewable source, the grass and wood will grow again. The gasoline we put in our cars come from a source that we are depleting, i.e. we are increasing the net CO2 concentration in the atmosphere.
michael_dowling
There have been scads of plans to produce fuels from biomatter,but somehow,none of them come to fruition.Probably because what works great on the lab bench doesn't scale economically.I for one am not holding my breath.
JohnDavidHanna
The problems are in the distribution of the fuels. Yes they should convert biomass instead of dumping it. Animal foods and fertilizers easier to distribute, especially if the city does it instead of landfills and gives the stuff away to encourage egg production (etc) and growing stuff.
StWils
Freddy & Michael both are correct but have overlooked important elements. Ideas to use biomass from crops overlooks the value these same crop "wastes" have on improving and aerating soils. While urban and suburban biomass sources such as leaves and trees are useful here and also a nuisance for every municipality the very best source is waste treatment plants. Retool this biomass conversion research to consume dried or de-watered sewage. Such a process would be of great value across the planet without competing with food production.
Douglas Bennett Rogers
Corn derived ethanol is a really bad idea. Diverts food to fuel. Biowaste fuel is a good idea but only works at the edges. Pumped irrigation water is responsible for at least half of the anthropogenic greenhouse effect.
Mel Tisdale
@Douglas Rogers
"Pumped irrigation water is responsible for at least half of the anthropogenic greenhouse effect."
Can you cite a source, please?
Pacific Oyster
Already been done in New Zealand. Check here: http://gull.nz/fuel/db-export-brewtroleum/
They now also manufacture ethanol from dairy waste.
Gizzyfuel
what if in theory that someone were to math out how big a container would we need to hold the Co2 emission before we would need to replace the container and introduce a system of breaking that down back into oxygen and storing the Carbon for other uses ?
Wouldnt this pretty much complete the cycle of clean energy ? or perhap we could use this Co2 for a Gaint warehouse full of plants with max effective of filtering it and have a filtering system that allows only oxygen to be release into the air ?
Bruce Miller
All this effort to keep the extremely inefficient piston Engine rather than go electric?"