Researchers from the Worcester Polytechnic Institute (WPI) in Massachusetts and the Arkansas Bioscience Institute (ABI) have said that biofuels produced from non-food plant products like corn stalks and wood chips could become a commercial reality.

At a symposium at WPI’s Life Sciences and Bioengineering Centre, teams from WPI and ABI suggested that advances in technology and science meant that plants could be harnessed to help meet energy needs.

Pamela J Weathers, PhD, professor of biology and biotechnology at WPI said: “With our colleagues in Arkansas, we are making good progress on developing the technology and understanding the biology that will allow us to use plants and microbes to help meet our energy needs and to create new pharmaceuticals and other chemical building blocks essential for a healthy society and environment.”

Alex DiIorio and Chris McPhie of the Bioprocess Centre at WPI gave their presentation on biofuel production.

The abstract of their findings:

Biofuels production, specifically, ethanol production in the United States has increased dramatically since the year 2000, ranging from 1 percent of the overall gasoline pool or 1.63 billion gallons in 2000, up to 2.85 percent and 3.9 billion gallons in 2005. Total production potential in 2007 was almost 6.5 billion gallons, leading the world in ethanol output. The United States and Brazil account for over 90 percent of the world’s total ethanol production, but is it enough? And are we headed in the right direction? Ethanol from corn, which is the basis of ethanol production in the United States, is a grossly inefficient process as compared to other sources such as sugar cane which is the basis for ethanol production in Brazil. Corn yields only 320 to 420 gallons of ethanol per acre, while sugar cane yields in Brazil range from 720 to 870 gallons per acre. Ethanol from corn, also a food crop, would eventually compete with food markets and cause prices to rise. There is conflicting evidence that this is currently happening. Cellulosic ethanol promises much higher efficiencies than are currently available from plants possessing inherently large concentrations of sugar as this method uses most of the available biomass. Complex carbohydrate structures such as lignin and hemi-cellulose pose a formidable technical barrier to releasing fermentable sugars from plant-derived feedstock. Technologies specifically designed to overcome these barriers are currently in development, from mechanical/chemical techniques designed to destroy the lignin barrier, to enzyme cocktails, and finally to genetic engineering techniques to design a “super digester” of these complex structural materials. In the WPI Bioprocess Center, naturally occurring organisms have been isolated and their genes modified to generate enhanced enzymes for improved and cost-effective cellulolytic breakdown. As part of our ongoing efforts, starting with dissected termite gut; native organisms have been cultivated and modified to yield enhanced enzymatic activity.