New biofuel process dramatically improves energy recovery

Jul 10, 2012

A new biofuel production process created by Michigan State University researchers produces energy more than 20 times higher than existing methods.

The results, published in the current issue of , showcase a novel way to use microbes to produce biofuel and hydrogen, all while consuming agricultural wastes.

Gemma Reguera, MSU microbiologist, has developed bioelectrochemical systems known as microbial electrolysis cells, or MECs, using bacteria to breakdown and ferment into ethanol. Reguera's platform is unique because it employs a second bacterium, which, when added to the mix, removes all the waste fermentation byproducts or nonethanol materials while .

Similar have been investigated before. However, maximum energy recoveries from , a common feedstock for biofuels, hover around 3.5 percent. Reguera's platform, despite the energy invested in of the corn stover, averaged 35 to 40 percent energy recovery just from the , said Reguera, an AgBioResearch scientist who co-authored the paper with Allison Spears, MSU graduate student.

"This is because the fermentative bacterium was carefully selected to degrade and ferment agricultural wastes into ethanol efficiently and to produce byproducts that could be metabolized by the electricity-producing bacterium," Reguera said. "By removing the waste products of fermentation, the growth and metabolism of the fermentative bacterium also was stimulated. Basically, each step we take is custom-designed to be optimal."

The second bacterium, Geobacter sulfurreducens, generates electricity. The electricity, however, isn't harvested as an output. It is used to generate hydrogen in the MEC to increase the energy recovery process even more, Reguera said.

"When the MEC generates hydrogen, it actually doubles the energy recoveries," she said. "We increased energy recovery to 73 percent. So the potential is definitely there to make this platform attractive for processing agricultural wastes."

Reguera's fuel cells use corn stover treated by the ammonia fiber expansion process, an advanced pretreatment technology pioneered at MSU. AFEX is an already proven method that was developed by Bruce Dale, MSU professor of chemical engineering and materials science.

Dale is currently working to make AFEX viable on a commercial scale.

In a similar vein, Reguera is continuing to optimize her MECs so they, too, can be scaled up on a commercial basis. Her goal is to develop decentralized systems that can help process agricultural wastes. Decentralized systems could be customized at small to medium scales (scales such as compost bins and small silages, for example) to provide an attractive method to recycle the wastes while generating fuel for farms.

Explore further: Imaginative ideas for a 'greenlight district' in Amsterdam

Related Stories

Process can cut the cost of making cellulosic biofuels

Jan 22, 2009

A patented Michigan State University process to pretreat corn-crop waste before conversion into ethanol means extra nutrients don't have to be added, cutting the cost of making biofuels from cellulose.

Fermenting fodder into fuel

Jan 28, 2010

(PhysOrg.com) -- As climate change challenges continue to crop up around fossil fuel use and greenhouse gas emissions such as carbon dioxide, identifying renewable fuel materials and developing processes that ...

Researchers discover how bacteria can immobilize uranium

Sep 06, 2011

(PhysOrg.com) -- For several years, researchers have known that certain kinds of bacteria are able to "feed" off certain metals by either adding or removing electrons from their structure, but until now, haven’t really ...

Recommended for you

Image: Testing electric propulsion

11 hours ago

On Aug. 19, National Aviation Day, a lot of people are reflecting on how far aviation has come in the last century. Could this be the future – a plane with many electric motors that can hover like a helicopter ...

Where's the real value in Tesla's patent pledge?

12 hours ago

With the much-anticipated arrival next month of electric vehicle manufacturer Tesla's Model S to Australian shores, it's a good time to revisit Tesla's pledge to freely share patents. ...

New type of solar concentrator doesn't block the view

Aug 19, 2014

(Phys.org) —A team of researchers at Michigan State University has developed a new type of solar concentrator that when placed over a window creates solar energy while allowing people to actually see through ...

Asian inventions dominate energy storage systems

Aug 19, 2014

In recent years, the number of patent applications for electrochemical energy storage technologies has soared. According to a study by the Technical University Munich, the largest volume of applications is ...

User comments : 3

Adjust slider to filter visible comments by rank

Display comments: newest first

that_guy
not rated yet Jul 10, 2012
interesting. It looks like this process is focused on better energy recovery from waste, a good supplementary fuel process.

If their numbers are correct, the energy from this process would have appx 10 times the useful energy output of gas (Seeing as regular ethanol takes about twice as much energy to produce as gas)

So hopefully they can put their money where their mouths are.
Birger
1 / 5 (1) Jul 10, 2012
Hydrogen: "We increased energy recovery to 73 percent"

This is presumably in regard to the "averaged 35 to 40 percent energy recovery" quoted above, making the total 25 to 30 per cent.
Using the hydrogen for fuel cells with 80 per cent efficiency could create electicity.
Newbeak
1 / 5 (1) Jul 10, 2012
What everybody forgets,however,is that plant "waste" is not waste:it's decomposition revitalizes the soil.So,make sure to leave some on the ground.