The distinctive “alligator tree,” or sweetgum tree, may hold the key to a more efficient process for making cellulosic ethanol from biowaste. The sweetgum’s unusually rough bark gives it the reptilian nickname, and it is easily identifiable by the spike-festooned, gumball shaped seed cases hanging from its branches. But what caught the attention of researchers from the University of Florida is invisible to the naked eye.
Until now, one major stumbling block for the commercialization of cellulosic ethanol is the cost. Made typically from wood chips and other waste biomass, the process involves breaking down the complex compounds that form plant cell walls, to produce simple sugar molecules. It’s a complicated process to begin with, and it also requires heating the biomass or treating it with acids such as sulfuric acid. This adds even more costs and contributes to a rather hefty carbon footprint for the production process as a whole.
The Bacteria Solution to Cellulosic Ethanol
Researchers at the University of Florida have found a bacteria in the sweetgum tree that is especially good at breaking down hemicelluloses, a component in plant structure. The bacteria is a strain of Paenibacillus sp. called JDR-2. The idea would be to transfer genes from JDR-2 into bacteria that are used to produce ethanol, leading to more simple, sustainable process. Like so many other breakthroughs, the discovery was almost accidental. Research team leader James Preston, a professor in the microbiology and cell science department, came across JDR-2 while he was using decayed wood from sweetgum trees to grow shiitake mushrooms.
The Future of Cellulosic Ethanol
The University of Florida discovery is one of many new developments in the cellulosic ethanol field. The company Qteros is experimenting with a sustainable yeast-like microbial process for non-food biomass, Mascoma Corp. is working on a process that combines two production steps in one, and researchers at Michigan State University have patented a pre-treatment method that could significantly cut the cost of making cellulosic ethanol from corn crop waste. With the U.S. Department of Energy making a heavy investment in biorefinery infrastructure, it looks like cellulosic ethanol is here to stay.
Image: Steve Beger Photography (Beger.com Productions) on flickr.com.
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