Next generation MSU biofuel technology wins U.S. scale-up support

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The Michigan Biotechnology Institute A $4.3 million competitive federal grant will help scale up advanced biofuel technology developed by Michigan State University AgBioResearch scientist Bruce Dale.

Dale, professor of chemical engineering and materials science at MSU, established a method to turn agricultural waste and nonfood plants into material that is more easily processed into biofuels and chemicals. The Michigan Biotechnology Institute (MBI) will use U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) funding to step up Dale’s process from lab bench scale to a 100-fold larger working prototype.

“Our process uses concentrated ammonia to open up the cell walls of grasses, straws, woody materials, etc., so that the sugars in the cell walls can be more easily converted into fuels, chemicals and cattle feed. The new grant will allow us to test this process at a much larger scale and to determine its engineering and economic performance as wel continue to scale it up for commercial applications,” Dale said.

“This grant is focused on understanding how we deploy these technologies in the real world,” said Doug Gage, director of the MSU BioEconomy Network. “That’s often the place where many promising ideas fail commercially. It’s looking at the whole sequence from biomass to an end product.”

If it proves viable at commercial scale, the process, dubbed AFEX, could add a broad range of affordable, sustainable and local fuel sources to America’s energy assets. It promises new economic opportunities for rural communities and solutions to concerns over cost and food-versus-fuel tradeoffs, which today are prompting policymakers to back away from first-generation, corn-based biofuels such as ethanol.

“It is because of these high-level benefits that Michigan leaders such as Sen. Carl Levin have worked with MSU to bring visibility to such transformational technologies,” said Bobby Bringi, MBI’s president and CEO.

AFEX uses ammonia and water under moderate pressure and heat to break plant material down into an intermediate form. Sugars can then be easily extracted and converted into fuels and chemicals. Nearly all the ammonia is recycled, and the rest goes into the intermediate product, which could alternatively be turned into cattle feed.

Owned by the MSU Foundation, MBI is MSU’s bio-based technology “de-risking” enterprise. Located in the University Corporate Research Park in Lansing south of the MSU campus, MBI works with MSU researchers and with external organizations to develop their technologies. With MSU researchers, for example, MBI helped Cargill Inc. develop the biodegradable polymer used in SunChips compostable bags. Its 120,000-square-foot facility includes MBI’s pilot production plant and faculty and contract research laboratories.

“The ability to combine world-class research with the capability to bridge the gap between research and practical applications is critical for success,” Bringi said. “This award will help us accelerate this important technology toward the market.”

The DOE grant leverages work done by Dale and other researchers at the Great Lakes Bioenergy Research Center, of which MSU and MBI are partners. The GLBRC brings scientists together to create innovative approaches to improving plants, processing, catalysts and sustainable practices in bioenergy. Dale last year was named among the most influential people in bioenergy by Biofuels Digest.

Photo: The Michigan Biotechnology Institute

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