UW-Madison researchers are building better biofuels

Source: By Thomas Content, Milwaukee Journal Sentinel • Posted: Monday, February 10, 2014

UW-Madison researchers Jim Dumesic (left) and Jeremy Luterbacher use a plant-derived chemical, called gamma-Valerolactone, or GVL, to produce a concentrated stream of sugars.

Joe Koshollek / for the Journal Sentinel

UW-Madison researchers Jim Dumesic (left) and Jeremy Luterbacher use a plant-derived chemical, called gamma-Valerolactone, or GVL, to produce a concentrated stream of sugars.

One bottle in professor Jim Dumesic’s chemical engineering lab stands out from the rest these days.

The bottle has a brown solution on top and a clear one on the bottom, and they’re elegantly separated.

“It’s just like with oil and vinegar for a salad. If you let it sit, it’ll separate on its own,” said Jeremy Luterbacher, a graduate fellow at the University of Wisconsin-Madison.

There’s not much liquid in it, just a few milliliters. But the vial may invigorate research into making next-generation biofuels a little easier — and less costly — to produce.

The reason: It could potentially save billions on the cost to bring to market new biofuels, those that move beyond the fuel vs. food debate.

The way that bottle became two liquids in one is the subject of an article published this month in the journal Science. The research by Luterbacher, Dumesic and their colleagues, which began in 2012, is so promising that the Wisconsin Alumni Research Foundation is funding additional work to prove it at a larger scale. And a start-up company, Glucan Biorenewables, at the UW Research Park is also working to refine the process.

The research, if it pans out in more testing, seeks to remove a key roadblock on the path toward producing more biofuels from plants that aren’t used as food.

An initial economic assessment of the process indicates that using this method could produce savings of 10% when compared with competing technologies, the UW researchers found.

That got the attention of Jim Lane, editor of Biofuels Digest, who termed the research a “hot biofuels development” in his industry publication.

Savings of 10% could be significant, Lane said.

“The value of global ethanol production is measured these days in the tens of billions of dollars, which means that a 10% shift in cost represents a potential increase in margins in the billions of dollars. That’s billion with a ‘b,'” he wrote.

Bringing down costs

The work is part of a broader effort in Madison and around the country to figure out more cost-effective ways to produce renewable biofuels and next-generation, or cellulosic, ethanol.

One challenge that researchers have been working on is simplifying, and bringing down the cost of, releasing the sugars contained inside plant materials.

“Our process represents another option in doing that release,” said Dumesic. “We’re hoping it’s going to be competitive with existing processes,” with the potential to have a major impact on the industry.

“That’s why we’re trying to do this at a larger scale, to really assess how cost-effectively can we release the sugars from biomass.”

WARF is now funding a scale-up of the process on campus through its accelerator program, which pumps roughly $2 million a year into a variety of projects “specifically to improve the potential to commercialize the technology or the innovation that’s reflected in these projects,” said Leigh Cagan, WARF’s chief technology commercialization officer.

“The critical question that industry has is, ‘Yes, but can you scale it up?'” he said.

“Until it can be shown that it is scalable, there’s a lot of risk associated with making the major investment in it,” Cagan added. “So our hope is that by investing the accelerator program dollars now and attempting to answer that question, hopefully with a yes, we can help lower the perceived risk in the new process from a commercial perspective and improve the value proposition.”

He described the new work as “a very exciting process to take plants and biomass materials and — more economically than other methods — produce sugars that can be biologically or chemically upgraded into higher value materials like biofuels.”

Dumesic’s track record hasn’t gone unnoticed. He’s twice been named a top scientist by Scientific American magazine and in March will be elected as a fellow of the National Academy of Inventors.

It was 12 years ago that Dumesic and his colleague, Randy Cortright, published biofuels research in the journal Nature concerning plant-sugars-to-fuels technology that became Virent Energy, now Virent Inc., one of the state’s leading clean-technology companies when it comes to raising venture capital and research funding.

“Jim is a proven entrepreneur,” said Cagan. Dumesic remains on the faculty but has “a strong record of entrepreneurship and a good feel for what can be commercialized.”

The lab’s initial work was funded by the National Science Foundation and the Great Lakes Bioenergy Research Center at UW-Madison. The center is one of three national centers created in the George W. Bush administration to accelerate R&D to help the nation develop more efficient renewable fuel technology.

“We think this is the first of a litany of things that are going to make a difference” in moving toward more cost-effective production of biofuels from plants that aren’t used for food, said Tim Donohue, the center’s executive director.

Research by the center’s scientists, both in Madison and at partner institutions such as Michigan State University, is focused on a variety of areas. Some take longer to develop because they involve changes to plant structures that would then be researched and eventually brought to market by a seed company, Donohue said.

“All the things that we’re doing don’t have the same time to move from the lab bench to the market,” he said. “The type of thing that Jim’s doing, if we can scale it, it will move to the market very fast.”

Along with WARF and the bioenergy center, the recently built Wisconsin Energy Institute is supporting the scale-up of the technology.

“This is totally consistent and in line with the Discovery to Product program that develops partnerships to move things from the campus to the private sector as rapidly as we can,” Donohue said.

Scaling up

The project’s next phase is the construction of a bioreactor that will be able to produce 1 liter of the sugar solution instead of just milliliters. That will produce enough sugars to test how well it works in the fuel production process, as how well the key ingredient in the process — gamma-Valerolactone, or GVL — can be recycled.

“You’re talking about orders of magnitude larger scale,” said Cagan. “In the scheme of things, you’re still talking about a dramatic increase in the scale at which you’ve demonstrated the efficacy of the process.”

Luterbacher, the lead author of the paper that appeared in Science, said the separation process that created the vial of oil-and-vinegar like liquid came with the help of something else found in many kitchens.

He ended up adding liquid carbon dioxide — the kind found in home-carbonation devices like SodaStream — to make the sugar-separation process happen.

When Luterbacher joined Dumesic’s lab in 2012, Dumesic and his team were already working with GVL, the key ingredient in the process.

Dumesic published research several years ago demonstrating how GVL could be converted into gasoline and jet fuel

The new research found what could be an even better use of GVL, tapping it directly to separate the biomass in such a way as to extract the sugars.

The novel approach, Luterbacher said, underscores the open-minded approach in Dumesic’s lab, where there’s a willingness to study ideas and areas of research no one else is considering

Said Luterbacher: “The fact that he has so little interest in doing things that are routine is why he keeps coming up with these very high impact publications that sort of change the direction of the entire field.”