A research project to improve efficiency in the biorefining process for butanol production from forest and agricultural biomass has been launched by Maobing Tu, an assistant professor in the Auburn University School of Forestry and Wildlife Sciences.
Tu said his study, titled “Carbonyl Inhibition of Butanol Production from Biomass Hydrolysates by Clostridium acetobutylicum,” will be a significant step toward making butanol production economically viable.
He said the work also will be helpful in the design and manufacturing of machines used to produce butanol, and is expected to advance understanding of the chemical processes involved in biomass processing. A successful outcome for this project will significantly promote biofuels production, which has further positive implications for national energy security and independence.
“Butanol is one of the promising advanced biofuels being pursued by industry for the next generation of alternative fuels,” Tu said. “However, cost-effective production of butanol from lignocellulosic biomass is still challenging. In particular, hydrolysate inhibition limits butanol fermentation efficiency.”
Tu said butanol has several advantages over ethanol, including a higher energy content that is closer to gasoline. Unlike ethanol, butanol can be used in cars directly, without mixing or altering the vehicle. In addition, because ethanol can absorb water, it rusts pipes, making transportation a challenge.
Both biofuels can be derived from the same biomass materials, but butanol is more difficult to produce. This is due in part to sensitivity of microorganisms to toxic compounds generated in biomass pretreatment, which can either slow down or stop the fermentation process completely.
He said the process of producing butanol releases hydrolysates, which are basically liquified toxins. The toxins are naturally occurring substances in trees. These substances interfere with the fermentation that is part of the biorefining process and are one of the main obstacles to butanol being a commercially viable product. In his research, Tu will continue to identify what specific substances slow or stop the fermentation and determine how to neutralize these substances.
Tu’s research is funded by a five-year, $401,155 National Science Foundation Faculty Early Career Development Award.
“Dr. Tu’s research will help solve technological barriers to producing cellulose-based liquid fuels that we can use to offset fossil fuels,” said James Shepard, dean of the School of Forestry and Wildlife Sciences. “We are very pleased that the value of his work has been recognized by the National Science Foundation.”
The CAREER program offers the NSF’s most prestigious awards, honoring junior faculty who excel in research and teaching and integrating these roles at their institutions.
An important component of CAREER awards is the integration of teaching the next generation of scientists. Tu’s project includes plans to hire 20 undergraduate researchers from Auburn University and Tuskegee University, with special effort to recruit a diverse cohort of students.
Tu joined the Auburn faculty in 2008. He earned his doctorate from the University of British Columbia in 2007. He is the first CAREER award recipient from Auburn University’s School of Forestry and Wildlife Sciences.
For an image of Tu, go to http://www.flickr.com/photos/auburnuniversity/8560830214/.