Ethanol: The Next Generation

January 19, 2014 |

ethanol-the-next-genThese are the voyages of the ethanol fleet.

Their continuing mission: to explore strange new fuels, seek out new biologies and re-power our civilization, to affordably go where no technology has gone before.

Today, the crew of the news-ship Digestprise visit the University of Wisconsin, where a group of researchers have found a path to lop 10 percent off the cost of making ethanol. Moonshiners and fuel producers may well rejoice.

The Lactones are a weirdly named group of molecules — sounding more like an old doo-wop group from the 50s (the Lack-Tones, right up there with the Del-Tones, or the Def-Tones). But it’s an ester, which in turn sounds like a book out of the Old Testament.

In a hot biofuels development, a group out of Jim Dumesic’s lab at the University of Wisconsin has come up with something fun and cool that you can do with lactones. In this case, a Gamma Velerolactone, which sounds itself distinctly like advanced space weaponry right out of Star Trek: The Next Generation.

But let’s set aside the weirdness of the nomenclature and concentrate on the content — something that any fan of Engelbert Humperdinck learned to do, early and often.

Science has the full story, published at the end of last week — a process that uses gamma valerolactone, or GVL, to deconstruct plants and produce sugars that can be chemically or biologically upgraded into biofuels. With support from the Wisconsin Alumni Research Foundation (WARF), the team will begin scaling up the process later this year.

Reducing the cost of ethanol production by 10 percent

At stake? A 10 percent savings in producing ethanol, compared to other known processes. And the process itself is more plant-based, and thereby more renewable.

Because GVL is created from the plant material, it’s both renewable and more affordable than conversion methods requiring expensive chemicals or enzymes. The process also converts 85 to 95 percent of the starting material to sugars that can be fed to yeast for fermentation into ethanol, or chemically upgraded furans to create drop-in biofuels.

Now, 10 percent is, as they say, not nothing. The value of global ethanol production is measured these days in the tens of billions of dollars, which means that a 10 percent shift in cost represents a potential increase in margins in the billions of dollars. That’s billion with a “b”.

“With the sugar platform, you have possibilities,” says Jeremy Luterbacher, a UW-Madison postdoctoral researcher and the paper’s lead author. “You’ve taken fewer forks down the conversion road, which leaves you with more end destinations, such as cellulosic ethanol and drop-in biofuels.”

“Showing that removing and recycling GVL can be done easily, with a low-energy separation step, is a little more of an achievement,” says Luterbacher. “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.”

“What’s neat is that we can use additives to make the solution separate,” says Luterbacher. “It becomes like oil and vinegar.” Their additive of choice? Liquid carbon dioxide. “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 says.

Available for sale from your local WARF dealer

This research has contributed new knowledge to the biofuels landscape, resulted in four patent applications, and gained recognition for GVL’s commercial potential from WARF’s Accelerator Program. The program helps license high potential technologies more rapidly by addressing specific technical hurdles with targeted funding and expert advice from seasoned business mentors in related fields.

Under the Accelerator Program effort, Dumesic will serve as principal investigator for an 18-month project involving construction of a high-efficiency biomass reactor. The reactor will use GVL to produce concentrated streams of high-value sugars and intact lignin solids.

Carbohydrates and lignin from the reactor will be delivered to scientific collaborators, including fellow GLBRC investigators, who will optimize strategies for converting the materials into valuable chemicals and fuels.

“We’re excited by the team’s scientific achievements and we look forward to supporting the project’s next steps through the Accelerator Program,” says Leigh Cagan, WARF’s chief technology commercialization officer. “If the project successfully achieves the anticipated cost reductions for production of the sugars, lignin and ethanol, we anticipate significant commercial interest in this novel process.”

The bottom line

It’s a biobased chemical that makes a transformative impact on fuel production. Reminding us that much of current technology development focus is on making more value at the sites and for the feedstocks that were already uncovered in the first-generation ethanol boom.

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