Researchers produce cheap sugars for sustainable biofuel production

September 29, 2011
Iowa State researchers have developed thermochemical technologies that efficiently produce sugars from biomass. Lead researcher Robert C. Brown calls the sugars “pyrolytic molasses.” Naomi Friend photo. Credit: Naomi Friend/Iowa State Bioeconomy Institute photo.

Iowa State University's Robert C. Brown keeps a small vial of brown, sweet-smelling liquid on his office table.

"It looks like something you could pour on your pancakes," he said. "In many respects, it is similar to molasses."

Brown, in fact, calls it "pyrolytic molasses."

That's because it was produced by the fast of biomass such as corn stalks or . Fast pyrolysis involves quickly heating the biomass without oxygen to produce liquid or gas products.

"We think this is a new way to make inexpensive sugars from biomass," said Brown, an Anson Marston Distinguished Professor in Engineering, the Gary and Donna Hoover Chair in Mechanical Engineering and the Iowa Farm Bureau Director of Iowa State's Bioeconomy Institute.

That's a big deal because those sugars can be further processed into biofuels. Brown and other Iowa State researchers believe pyrolysis of lignocelluslosic biomass has the potential to be the cheapest way to produce biofuels or biorenewable chemicals.

Brown and Iowa State researchers will present their ideas and findings during tcbiomass2011, the International Conference on Thermochemical Conversion Science in Chicago Sept. 28-30. On Thursday, Sept, 29, Brown will address the conference with a plenary talk describing how large amounts of sugars can be produced from biomass by a simple pretreatment before pyrolysis. He'll also explain how these sugars can be economically recovered from the products of pyrolysis.

A poster session following Brown's talk will highlight thermochemical technologies developed by 19 Iowa State research teams, including processes that:

  • increase the yield of sugar from fast pyrolysis of biomass with a pretreatment that neutralizes naturally occurring that otherwise interferes with the release of sugars
  • prevent burning of sugar released during pyrolysis by rapidly transporting it out of the hot reaction zone
  • recover sugar from the heavy end of bio-oil that has been separated into various fractions
  • separate sugars from the heavy fractions of bio-oil using a simple water-washing process.
In addition to Brown, key contributors to the pyrolysis research at Iowa State include Brent Shanks, the Mike and Jean Steffenson Professor of Chemical and Biological Engineering and director of the National Science Foundation Engineering Research Center for Biorenewable Chemicals based at Iowa State; Christopher Williams, professor of civil, construction and environmental engineering; Zhiyou Wen, associate professor of food science and human nutrition; Laura Jarboe, assistant professor of chemical and biological engineering; Xianglan Bai, adjunct assistant professor of aerospace engineering; Marjorie Rover and Sunitha Sadula, research scientists at the Center for Sustainable Environmental Technologies; Dustin Dalluge, a graduate student in mechanical engineering; and Najeeb Kuzhiyil, a former doctoral student who is now working for GE Transportation in Erie, Penn.

Their work has been supported by the eight-year, $22.5 million ConocoPhillips Biofuels Program at Iowa State. The program was launched in April 2007.

Brown said Iowa State will – literally – take a bus load of students and researchers to the Chicago conference to present their work on thermochemical technologies, including production of sugars from biomass.

"The Department of Energy has been working for 35 years to get sugar out of biomass," Brown said. "Most of the focus has been on use of enzymes, which remains extremely expensive. What we've developed is a simpler method based on the heating of ."

Explore further: Iowa State engineer to tell Senate committee to think beyond ethanol from corn

Related Stories

Bioasphalt to be used, tested on Des Moines bike trail

October 7, 2010

Iowa State University's Christopher Williams was just trying to see if adding bio-oil to asphalt would improve the hot- and cold-weather performance of pavements. What he found was a possible green replacement for asphalt ...

Recommended for you

New polymer creates safer fuels

October 1, 2015

Before embarking on a transcontinental journey, jet airplanes fill up with tens of thousands of gallons of fuel. In the event of a crash, such large quantities of fuel increase the severity of an explosion upon impact. Researchers ...

Researchers print inside gels to create unique shapes

September 30, 2015

(—A team of researchers at the University of Florida has taken the technique of printing objects inside of a gel a step further by using a highly shear-rate sensitive gel. In their paper published in the journal ...

How a molecular motor untangles protein

October 1, 2015

A marvelous molecular motor that untangles protein in bacteria may sound interesting, yet perhaps not so important. Until you consider the hallmarks of several neurodegenerative diseases—Huntington's disease has tangled ...

Anti-aging treatment for smart windows

October 1, 2015

Electrochromic windows, so-called 'smart windows', share a well-known problem with rechargeable batteries – their limited lifespan. Researchers at Uppsala University have now worked out an entirely new way to rejuvenate ...


Adjust slider to filter visible comments by rank

Display comments: newest first

not rated yet Sep 29, 2011
this comes on the heels of extraction using supercritical hot water, i wonder what process is cheaper?
1 / 5 (1) Sep 29, 2011
I read about that too. Although this article is very short on details, I would assume that it takes a lot less energy per unit, as it doesn't need to heat up all that water. That said, it also depends on the different yields and extra expense required to finely control the variables, in order not to burn up the sugar.

"It looks like something you could pour on your pancakes," he said. "In many respects, it is similar to molasses."

A few years from now, I'll let you know that i told you so, when all the packages come with following phrase in the ingredients list.

"Contains high xylose pyrolytic molassas"

It's the natural side business to this.
1 / 5 (1) Sep 29, 2011
A few years from now, I'll let you know that i told you so, when all the packages come with following phrase in the ingredients list.

"Contains high xylose pyrolytic molassas"

It's the natural side business to this.

I mean as an ingredient in your food of course.
5 / 5 (1) Sep 30, 2011
Now all we need is some industrial hemp!!

Every time I hear someone talk about turning corn into fuel I cringe.
not rated yet Sep 30, 2011
Can they recycle the bio-char residue to the fields ??
1 / 5 (1) Sep 30, 2011
Can they recycle the bio-char residue to the fields ??

Why not just turn it into activated carbon for filtration systems?
not rated yet Oct 04, 2011
The issue will be whether there are too many other toxic substances made as well, such as phenol, or furan. The idea was to make liquid fuel, not charcoal. There should be ways to more directly convert this to fuel without fermenting it with yeast, then toxic materials will not matter.

Please sign in to add a comment. Registration is free, and takes less than a minute. Read more

Click here to reset your password.
Sign in to get notified via email when new comments are made.