Search for Sugars

Science fair project zeros in on aspen bark for ethanol production
By Holly Jessen | September 12, 2011

Breaking down the cellulose in wood isn’t easy. But—as two Canadian students and their science teacher discovered—bark is a different story.

James Ross and Isaiah Saunders, who are today graduates of St. Joseph-Scollard Hall, a Catholic school in North Bay, Ontario, took their bark-to-ethanol science project from a local science fair all the way to an international science fair. With the help of high school science teacher David Chechak, the pair produced ethanol from aspen bark—calculating one tree would produce about 16 gallons of ethanol.

The project won one of three awards of merit in the energy and transport category at the Expo Science International for pre-college science exhibition. The event was held in Bratislava, Slovakia, in July, and included projects by 1,500 students from more than 75 countries around the world. “We weren’t expecting this,” Ross says of winning the award. “We couldn’t stop smiling when we heard the news. It was the biggest surprise of our lives.”

The idea of making ethanol from aspen bark stemmed from the fact that deer and porcupine survive on it in the winter. “We figured if animals eat it, then there must be sugar in there, which, when fermented with yeast, can produce ethanol,” Ross says. 

The bark of poplar and aspen trees is a somewhat toxic waste product that goes into landfills, Chechak tells EPM. For their science experiment Ross and Saunders ground up the bark and wood separately with a chainsaw. They found that, unlike the wood, the bark contained quite a bit of reduced sugars and could be fermented into ethanol fairly easily. Bark isn’t a cellulosic feedstock and, unlike wheat or corn, isn’t used for feed or food, he points out.

The project went so well Chechak, Ross and Saunders are seriously talking about applying for a patent. In September, Ross and Saunders start classes at Carleton University in Ottawa, Ontario. Ross wants to pursue a bachelor of science and Saunders will study engineering. “They were some of my top students,” Chechak says.  

—Holly Jessen