Researchers develop new pretreatment process

By Erin Voegele | July 08, 2008
Web exclusive posted August 4, 2008 at 11:09 a.m. CST

University of Georgia researchers have developed a new technology designed to dramatically increase ethanol yields from biomass materials, such as Bermuda grass, switchgrass, napier grass and yard waste.

Joy Peterson, a professor of microbiology and chair of UGA's Bioenergy Task Force, developed the new technology with former UGA microbiology student Sarah Kate Brandon and Mark Eiteman, UGA's professor of biological and agricultural engineering.

"Producing ethanol from renewable biomass sources such as grasses is desirable because they are potentially available in large quantities," Peterson said. "Optimizing the breakdown of the plant fibers is critical to production of liquid transportation fuel via fermentation."

The technology features a fast, mild acid-free pretreatment process that increases the amount of simple sugars that are released from biomass. Currently, pretreatment of woody biomass involves soaking the feedstock in expensive environmentally aggressive bases or acids under high pressure and temperatures. The pretreatment solutions must then be removed and disposed of safely. They can also form additional products that can slow the conversion of sugar to ethanol. This new technology eliminates the use of expensive and environmentally unsafe chemicals in the pretreatment process.

"By allowing for the use of myriad raw materials, this technology allows more options for ethanol facilities trying to meet nearby demand by using locally available, inexpensive starting materials," said Gennaro Gama, UGA Research Foundation Inc.'s technology manager. "This would greatly reduce the cost and carbon footprint associated with the delivery of raw materials to fermentation facilities and the subsequent delivery of ethanol to points of sale. Local production of ethanol may also protect specific areas against speculative fluctuations in fuel prices."

The technology is available for licensing from the University of Georgia Research Foundation Inc., which has filed a patent application.