More potentially transformative new research from the department of genetics, this time in the realm of transportation fuels. For sometime now, biofuels have held great promise - and have been the focus of great controversy. But the economics of the conversion process of grasses to fuels may have finally seen its last barrier fall:
Pre-treatment of the biomass feedstock—non-food crops such as switchgrass and miscanthus—is the step of breaking down plant cell walls before fermentation into ethanol. This pre-treatment step has long been the economic bottleneck hindering fuel production from lignocellulosic biomass feedstocks.
Janet Westpheling, a professor in the Franklin College of Arts and Sciences department of genetics, and her team of researchers—all members of U.S. Department of Energy-funded BioEnergy Science Center in which UGA is a key partner—succeeded in genetically engineering the organism C. bescii to deconstruct un-pretreated plant biomass.
"Given a choice between teaching an organism how to deconstruct biomass or teaching it how to make ethanol, the more difficult part is deconstructing biomass," said Westpheling, who spent two and a half years developing genetic methods for manipulating the C. bescii bacterium to make the current work possible.
The UGA research group engineered a synthetic pathway into the organism, introducing genes from other anaerobic bacterium that produce ethanol, and constructed a pathway in the organism to produce ethanol directly.
"Now, without any pretreatment, we can simply take switchgrass, grind it up, add a low-cost, minimal salts medium and get ethanol out the other end," Westpheling said. "This is the first step toward an industrial process that is economically feasible."
Emphasis mine. With no pre-treatment and the ability of microbe to transform the feedstock into ethanol (and other, higher-energy-yield fuels), this process is ready for industrial scale up. Westpheling explained how biofuels are already the standard in Brazil. Is the U.S. on the verge of a transformative fuel moment?
Image: Bales of miscanthus being transported in the U.K., courtesy of Wikimedia Commons. Miscanthus and switchgrass are the best biofuel feedstock because of the high tons-per-acre yield.