With so much focus on electric cars these days, it can be easy to forget how much money and effort is being funneled into biofuels. Ethanol has gotten a bad rap in recent years, with everyone from conservative deficit hawks to liberal environmentalists deriding it as a dead end. But a new breakthrough from researchers at Michigan State University increases the amount of recoverable energy by about 2000%.
A Biofuel Breakthrough Of Epic Proportions
The new process uses bacteria and fermentation processes optimized to extract as much energy as possible from corn stover, the leftover stalk, stem, and husks from corn plants. This leftover farm waste is sometimes utilized as fodder, but just as often it goes to waste. Traditional biofuel processing methods have been able to extract just 3.5% to 4.5% of the recoverable energy.
But a new bioelectrochemical process pioneered by Gemma Reguera utilizes microbial electrolysis cells, or MEC’s, to break down and ferment ethanol feedstock. The difference is that this new procedure used carefully-selected fermantative bacteria that were optimized to deliver the most energy, the least waste, and to produce byproducts that could also boost recoverable energy. “Basically, each step we take is custom-designed to be optimal,” says Reguera. The first fermentation step alone boosts recoverable energy to the 35% to 40% range.
Meanwhile, the byproducts produce electricity, which is used to generate hydrogen to further boost the recoverable energy, up to 73%. Keep in mind, traditional processing methods gather, at best, 4.5% of recoverable energy. This even accounts for pre-treating the corn stover with an ammonia-based fiber expanding process pioneered by another researcher.
Don’t Call It A Comeback
Personally, I try to stay away from hyping up every ethanol “breakthrough” that floods my inbox, but this breakthrough really could make ethanol fuels not just practical, but dirt cheap as well. Boosting the output of recoverable energy by a factor of 20 would mean that biofuel makers just scraping by now would be able to increase output to unprecedented levels. America’s heartland, which is suffering the worst drought in almost 60 years, could become the thriving heart of a new American-based fuel industry if this breakthrough delivers the kind of performance the researchers claim. And I don’t have to tell you how important making our own fuel will be in the coming decades.
Could Reguera’s discovery lead a biofuel comeback?
Source: MSU News