The Next-Next Best Thing

Iowa State University devotes attention to hybrid processing techniques
By Kris Bevill | July 22, 2011

Of the various potential cellulosic ethanol producers working to commercialize their technologies, most are taking a singular biochemical or thermochemical pathway approach. A select few are employing a hybrid approach, using thermochemical processes to extract sugars from biomass feedstocks and biochemical methods to ferment those sugars into saleable products. This hybrid approach deserves more focus, according to researchers at Iowa State University’s Biorenewables Research Laboratory.

A year ago, ISU opened its Hybrid Processing Laboratory, located on the first floor of the Biorenewables Research Laboratory, and researchers have since been actively researching and experimenting with different hybrid approaches to renewable fuels and chemicals production. The goal is to use the lab’s incubators, reactors, gas chromatography instruments and anaerobic chambers to find new and better ways to produce those products.
One of the researchers working in the hybrid lab is Laura Jarboe, assistant professor of chemical and biological engineering. She’s attempting to develop bacteria that can ferment sugars from bio-oil in order to produce biorenewable fuels and chemicals. She says the main advantage of using a hybrid approach to produce biofuels, rather than a singular approach, is that the process is feedstock agnostic. “Some of the traditional processes can be very dependent on the type of biomass you’re using,” she says. “This is a more generic treatment.”

So far, hybrid processes have been cost-comparative with singular approaches, and with additional research can be reduced even further, Jarboe says. A hybrid approach can also produce a suite of products, including liquid, syngas and biochar, rather than a single liquid stream. “I think the lab is working well,” she says. “Everybody loves the idea of this hybrid approach. It has such a promising future; the challenge is in the collaboration.”
Simply housing the hybrid lab within the biorenewables lab has fostered a collaborative environment. Robert Brown, a leader at the biorenewables lab, says students working in the hybrid lab have easily accepted the concept of using both biochemical and thermochemical production methods. “Just like children from different cultures often learn to communicate with one another more quickly than do their parents, graduate students seem to pick up cross disciplinary culture and language faster than their faculty advisors.” 

—Kris Bevill