Nav: Home

Energy Department grants $2.5M for biorefinery waste use, renewable bioproduct study

July 20, 2016

COLLEGE STATION -- The U.S. Department of Energy has granted $2.5 million for a Texas A&M AgriLife Research study to find ways to use biorefinery waste to make new, marketable products.

"In the biorefinery field, we have a saying: You can make anything but money out of lignin. And yet, that is the majority of waste or what's left over in the biorefinery plants," said Dr. Joshua Yuan, a biotechnologist and lead scientist on the AgriLife Research project. "Until we resolve this problem, biorefinery is not going to become economically viable."

Dr. Joshua Yuan Dr. Joshua Yuan, Texas A&M AgriLife Research plant pathologist (Texas A&M AgriLife Research photo by Kathleen Phillips)

Yuan and his team, who have been researching the sustainability of biofuel for years, will focus much of the three-year study on ways to make plastic materials from the lignin waste. His lab has other energy department grants - $4.9 million focused on use of plants to directly produce hydrocarbons at a higher yield; and $2.4 million to design a microorganism to convert lignin to lipids, or fatty acids, for fuel.

But the researcher said the new grant points to the philosophy behind biofuel - helping the U.S. create an alternative fuel source - in that it must be a sustainable, non-wasteful industry.

"The real challenge is not the science of how to make fuel but how to make a biorefinery economically feasible and sustainable," he said.

Yuan said about billions of dollars have been invested in the U.S. toward creating a modern biorefinery industry, and progress has been made in terms of plants such as switchgrass, sorghum, energy cane and other grass-type plants to produce fuel.

But all of those plants leave lignin, the stiff, almost woody cell wall material, after the fuel is extracted. Rather than try to burn it or otherwise dispose of it leaving an impact on the environment, he said, biorefineries prefer using the byproduct in additional products, which would help their overall bottom line.

This new project will use the biorefinery waste to develop plastic materials that could then be used to make other products, which in turn would be recyclable.

"We're hoping to help create an integrated biorefinery that will not only produce ethanol but also produce a lot of good and useful products out of this waste," Yuan said.

In a corn refinery where ethanol is produced, for example, the waste can be used for animal feed and to make corn oil, he noted. In a petroleum refinery, along with gasoline, diesel and kerosene, the leftover becomes asphalt.

"That is the model we seek for the grassy plant materials -- to produce ethanol as the main product, but in the meantime to also produce bioplastics," Yuan said. "When we talk about renewable energy or renewable fuel, there are two important considerations: One is economic. It has to be product cost effective. We cannot compete with $30-per-barrel petroleum -- it has to be more like $80-per-barrel petroleum for a biorefinery to complete, unless we have another product for which we can use the waste to make something wonderful."

Yuan said his team will work with an engineered microorganism that is able to convert lignin to plastic while also concentrating on maximizing the amount of plastic that can be made from the waste.

Two commercial partners and several biorefinery companies are collaborating with Yuan's team, which includes researchers with the University of Tennessee and Washington State University.
-end-


Texas A&M AgriLife Communications

Related Lignin Articles:

A model for better predicting the unpredictable byproducts of genetic modification
Researchers are interested in genetically modifying trees for a variety of applications, from biofuels to paper production.
A novel biofuel system for hydrogen production from biomass
A recent study, affiliated with South Korea's Ulsan National Institute of Science and Technology (UNIST) has presented a new biofuel system that uses lignin found in biomass for the production of hydrogen.
Plastic from wood
The biopolymer lignin is a by-product of papermaking and a promising raw material for manufacturing sustainable plastic materials.
KIST develops biofuel production process in cooperation with North American researchers
Biofuel is often touted as a clean fuel, but the fact that it is made using food sources is a major drawback.
How tiny enzymes reign supreme in worldwide carbon recycling
That white rot fungi on fallen logs in a forest, it's super important.
Turning wood into pharmaceutical ingredients 
Production of hazardous waste during drug manufacturing is a serious concern for the pharmaceutical industry.
Supercomputing improves biomass fuel conversion
Pretreating plant biomass with THF-water causes lignin globules on the cellulose surface to expand and break away from one another and the cellulose fibers.
Engineering enzymes to turn plant waste into sustainable products
A new family of enzymes has been engineered to perform one of the most important steps in the conversion of plant waste into sustainable and high-value products such as nylon, plastics and chemicals.
Scientists identify a novel target for corn straw utilization
A team of scientists led by Prof. FU Chunxiang from the Qingdao Institute of Bioenergy and Bioprocess Technology completed the identification of bm5 mutant.
Engineered microbe may be key to producing plastic from plants
With a few genetic tweaks, a type of soil bacteria with an appetite for hydrocarbons shows promise as a biological factory for converting a renewable -- but frustratingly untapped -- bounty into a replacement for ubiquitous plastics.
More Lignin News and Lignin Current Events

Trending Science News

Current Coronavirus (COVID-19) News

Top Science Podcasts

We have hand picked the top science podcasts of 2020.
Now Playing: TED Radio Hour

Clint Smith
The killing of George Floyd by a police officer has sparked massive protests nationwide. This hour, writer and scholar Clint Smith reflects on this moment, through conversation, letters, and poetry.
Now Playing: Science for the People

#562 Superbug to Bedside
By now we're all good and scared about antibiotic resistance, one of the many things coming to get us all. But there's good news, sort of. News antibiotics are coming out! How do they get tested? What does that kind of a trial look like and how does it happen? Host Bethany Brookeshire talks with Matt McCarthy, author of "Superbugs: The Race to Stop an Epidemic", about the ins and outs of testing a new antibiotic in the hospital.
Now Playing: Radiolab

Nina
Producer Tracie Hunte stumbled into a duet between Nina Simone and the sounds of protest outside her apartment. Then she discovered a performance by Nina on April 7, 1968 - three days after the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Tracie talks about what Nina's music, born during another time when our country was facing questions that seemed to have no answer, meant then and why it still resonates today.  Listen to Nina's brother, Samuel Waymon, talk about that April 7th concert here.