One of the upcoming technologies for biofuel is cellulosic ethanol, a fuel chemically similar to traditional ethanol but, instead, is synthesized from the cellulose and lignin of plants (lignocellulosic biomass).
Improvements in agricultural and biotechnology enabled us to cheaply produce lignocellulosic biomass at costs that are appreciably lower (about $15 per barrel of oil energy equivalent) than crude oil.
With reference to research done by a team of Agricultural Research Service (ARS) and University of Nebraska-Lincoln (UNL) scientists, seasoned farmers planting switchgrass is able to limit the cost of production to less than $50 per ton of switchgrass and using $50 per ton as generalization of all farmers, cost of producing cellulosic ethanol is estimated to be $0.55 to $0.62 per gallon, highlighting the feasibility and advantage of this technology. Prices are expected to become even lower with transfer of skills from seasoned farmers to new switchgrass farmers.
Advocates of cellulosic ethanol are also excited over perennial grasses like prairie native switchgrass and towering miscanthus, which does not need a lot of fertilizers and pesticides as compared to corn and also reduce the necessity to till the farm annually – a main culprit for soil erosion. They claim that these crops could generate greater amounts of biomass than corn, even on marginal lands where land is not as fertile as arable land.
However, the major obstacle for lignocellulosic-synthesized biofuels is the dearth of technology for the efficient breakdown of biomass into liquid fuels, thus causing the process to be very energy intensive. Scientists call this stumbling block in producing cellulosic ethanol, "recalcitrance" -- the tough, woody fuel sources, especially lignin, are very difficult to break down as compared to the simple sugars in corn. Essentially, there are three fundamental processes in cellulosic ethanol manufacturing: pre-treating the material to break cellular bonds, breaking down cellulose to sugars, and fermenting the sugars into ethanol. The ultimate goal for researchers is to do find a way to execute these processes as competently as termites, which turn wood pulp into nutrients with the aid of about two hundred species of microbes residing in their guts.
Nevertheless, progress in nanotechnology has bestowed us with extraordinary capability to understand and manipulate chemistry at the microscopic level, which act as an impetus for the development of biomass-to-fuels production technologies.
Several of such biotechnologies are mention in the science journal Nature. One of them is recombinant technology, which is readily accessible, that could increase ethanol yield, minimize harm done to the environment due to inputs, and enhance bioprocessing effectiveness at the processing plant.
Another technology is by the Swiss biotech firm, Syngenta. They are coming out with genetically engineered maize that facilitates its own conversion to ethanol by breeding a specific enzyme.
Another dangerous technology is making trees that contain less lignin, the pillar of support for trees to stand upright, because lignin hinders the conversion of biomass of plants to ethanol.
However, nothing beats the University of Maryland research team which came up with a process for mass production of ethanol from biomass. The process guarantees large-scale production of ethanol with any kind of plant feedstock and is developed by University of Maryland professors Steve Hutcheson and Ron Weiner and they name it the Zymetis process.
75 billion gallons of ethanol annually is what the Zymetis process promises when working in full speed. Chesapeake Bay marsh grass bacterium, S. degradans was the secret of the process. Hutcheson discovered that the bacterium possesses an enzyme that breaks down plant biomass into sugar rapidly, which can subsequently be processed to biofuel.
The Zymetis researchers made a duplicate of Bay bacterium in their lab, as it is difficult to isolate it in nature, and named it Ethazyme, which breaks down the hardy cell walls of cellulosic biomass and convert the entire plant composition into biofuel-ready sugars within one process. The whole process is much more cost-effective and use less caustic chemicals than current processes.
“The new Zymetis technology is a win for the State of Maryland , for the University and for the environment," said University of Maryland President C.D. Mote, Jr. "It makes affordable ethanol production a reality and makes it from waste materials, which benefits everyone and supports the green-friendly goal of carbon-neutrality.”