ORNL hails biofuel progress


The BioEnergy Science Center is based at Oak Ridge National Laboratory. (DOE photo)

Oak Ridge National Laboratory announced Wednesday that development of a new strain of yeast may dramatically add to the efficiency of making biofuels from non-food plant matter, such as corn stover — the stalk and other non-edible parts of corn.

The development was made by the ORNL-based BioEnergy Science Center, a Department of Energy facility, and Mascoma LLC, one of its research partners.

“The approach could provide a pathway to eventual expansion of biofuels production beyond the current output limited to ethanol derived from corn,” the lab’s news release stated.

Among the issues that has perhaps limited the use of biofuels has been the argument that devoting crops to fuel takes away from food production.

The engineering of a microbe known as C5 Fuel could reportedly counter that argument by enhancing processes — such as the conversion of biomass sugars — associated with production of fuel from the non-food plants.

The announcement said the fermentation and ethanol yields of the microbes set a new standard for process efficiency, converting up to 97 percent of the plant sugars into fuel.

The scientific findings were presented Wednesday at an international workshop being held this week in Minneapolis, Minn.

Mascoma and others participants in the 18-member research consortium have reportedly developed a number of new yeast strains over the past couple of years as part of efforts to gain processing efficiency and bring down the cost of making bio-based fuels.

Paul Gilna, director of the BioEnergy Science Center at ORNL, said in a statement that the shared expertise has “greatly accelerated” the transition of basic research into commercial products.

Driving down the cost of bioprocessing was one of the goals when the research center at Oak Ridge was launched in 2007, Gilna said.

” … This achievement allows us to advance to the next challenge,” he stated.

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About Frank Munger

Senior Writer Frank Munger covers the Dept. of Energy's Oak Ridge facilities and many related topics — nuclear weapons, nuclear waste and other things nuclear, environmental cleanup and science of all sorts. Atomic City Underground is, first and foremost, a news blog, but there's room for analysis, opinion and random thoughts that have no place else to go.