USDA Researchers Advance Advanced Ethanol

usda-logoResearchers for the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) are making advancements on an advanced biofuel, cellulosic ethanol. This article from the USDA says the scientists at the Bioenergy Research Unit in Peoria, Illinois, have recently completed studies on multiple approaches that could help streamline cellulosic ethanol production.

In one study, a team led by ARS chemical engineer Bruce Dien looked at using switchgrass, a perennial grass native to the prairie, for ethanol production. The team concluded that biomass producers could optimize cellulosic ethanol production by planting Kanlow variety—a lowland ecotype—and harvesting at either mid-season or post frost. Results from this study were published in Environmental Technology in 2013.

ARS chemist Michael Bowman led another study of switchgrass xylans, which is challenging to convert to sugars with enzymes because of its complex chemical structure. Bowman determined that structural features of xylan remained the same as the plant matures, even though the amount of xylan changed with maturity. This is good news for biorefiners, because it suggests that they can use the same biomass hydrolyzing enzymes to break down xylans in all switchgrass biomass, no matter when the crop is harvested. Results from this study were published in Metabolites in 2012.

The article also gives progress reports on work with microorganisms needed to ferment xylose—molecules that make up xylans—into ethanol and promising field trials with a yeast strain that grew almost four times faster than other strains that contained XI enzymes and one that could produce ethanol at significantly greater yields than other yeasts engineered to ferment xylose to ethanol.

Abengoa Celebrates Cellulosic Ethanol Achievement

Abengoa Cellulosic Ethanol Goes Into ProductionSpanish-based Abengoa celebrated its cellulosic ethanol achievement today with a celebration of the plant’s grand opening. Thousands of people attended the event with dozens of high profile guests on hand ranging from former and current Senators to governors to the town mayor, to Interior Secretary and Energy Secretary Ernst Moniz who gave the keynote speech.

The bioenergy plant is based in Hugoton, Kansas and when at full scale will produce 25 million gallons of cellulosic ethanol from biomass per year as well as 21 MW of electricity. The plant will use no power from the grid, in fact, it will sell its excess power – a model common in Europe and Brazil.

Javier Garoz Neira Abengoa BioenergyAbengoa announced the plant would be located in Hugoton in 2007 and a lot of has happened since then as Javier Garoz Neira, CEO of Abengoa Bioenergy, said in his remarks. That same year they produced cellulosic ethanol from wheat straw in their pilot facility located in York, Nebraska. In 2009 they built a larger cellulosic demonstration plant in central Spain. In 2011, working with the Department of Energy (DOE) Abengoa was able to secure a loan guarantee to build the plant in Hugoton, Kansas and today the plant is gearing up to produce cellulosic ethanol from corn and what residues at commercial scale.

“It is without a question a major achievement. And we believe it will revolutionize the biofuels industry and our future,” said Neira.

Listen to Javier Garoz Neira’s remarks: Abengoa Bioenergy CEO Javier Garoz Neira

Manuel Sanchez Ortega AgengoaManuel Sanchez Ortega, chief executive officer of Abengoa SA, began his remarks by noting how important today is for everyone in the room. He also addressed the role of the Renewable Fuel Standard (RFS) in providing a platform for the development of second generation biofuels. “Without the RFS, there was no way we would have decided to invest more than $500 million dollars in a project full of risks from both technology and financial without the existence of a solid framework of the RFS.”

Ortega stressed that the role that advanced biofuels will play around the world is not illusive. “The promise of a sustainable and domestic energy is not illusive or imaginary, not anymore. It is right here in front of us. Progress has always come from innovation. And we at Abengoa believe that only through innovation we make make Earth a better place to live.”

Listen to Manuel Sanchez Ortega’s remarks: Abengoa CEO Manuel Sanchez Ortega

Check out the Abengoa Cellulosic Ethanol Plant Grand Opening photo album.