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Researchers look at turning plant waste into biofuels

In a bid to find a solution to the ongoing debate between food and fuel pundits, researchers at the University of Guelph are working on a solution that turns inedible parts of crops into useable biofuel.


April 15, 2008
By University of Guelph

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April 15, 2008

Guelph, ON  -Using food crops for biofuels is being cited by the World Bank as aggravating skyrocketing food prices and hunger across the globe, but researchers at the University of Guelph are working on a possible solution.

A team of leading scientists are investing ways to turn the inedible parts of crops and other wasted biomass into usable biofuels.


Their three-year $600,000 study examines how to break down the plant cellulose found in corn husks, stalks and leaves as well as straw switchgrass and even wood chips and unlock the biofuels.


"Making ethanol from plant cellulose would offer an alternative to using food crops to produce energy as well as a lucrative use for waste biomass," said Prof. Anthony Clarke, Department of Molecular and Cellular Biology, who is working on the project with physicist John Dutcher and chemist Jacek Lipkowski.


The three researchers are also collaborating with Iogen Corp., an Ottawa-based biotechnology company that makes cellulose ethanol for biofuels and enzymes used in that process and other applications.


Cellulose ethanol is made by treating fibre with enzymes to yield sugars that are then fermented to ethanol for fuel. But, turning plant cellulose into ethanol is more difficult than the process used for corn ethanol, and finding ways to make this process more efficient has become like "the holy grail of agriculture," said Dutcher.


The densely packed cellulose fibres are what lend plants their toughness, allowing a tree to grow hundreds of feet high without falling over. Although the inflexibility of the cellulose makes it difficult to break down, there are natural enzymes that can degrade the plant structure. Cows, for example, can digest the plant fodder because their guts contain specially evolved microbes able to gnaw through cellulose.


The researchers hope to copy this natural breakdown right down to the molecular level by combining a range of expertise and tools, from genetically engineered microbial enzymes to nanoscale microscopy and imaging.


By learning how nature breaks down cellulose in biomass and improving on that process, they hope to help the biofuels industry make a product that's greener and more economically viable, said Clarke.


"We're trying to help with the efficiency of the process. If we can see this better, we can study the efficiency better."


This project is funded by the Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council, the BIOCAP Canada Foundation and the Alternative Renewable Fuels Research and Development Fund of the Ontario Ministry of Agriculture, Food and Rural Affairs.