“We have been charged to develop the next generation of cellulosic biofuels. When we successfully supply sources of energy to the grid from non-food, cellulosic, parts of plants we will mitigate the food versus fuel debate,” says Tim Donohue of the University of Wisconsin, Madison, one of two directors of Department of Energy Bioenergy Research Centers who spoke today in a session at the meeting.
When it comes to alternative fuels, currently ethanol is king. Almost all ethanol produced in the United States is fermented from readily available sugars in corn starch or corn kernels. Producing ethanol from corn has also come under much criticism lately, accused of being responsible for rising food prices.
Researchers are looking at alternate biomasses as food for microorganisms to ferment into ethanol. The most attractive are known as lignocellulosic biomass and include wood residues (including sawmill and paper mill discards), municipal paper waste, agricultural residues (including sugarcane bagasse), dedicated energy crops (like switchgrass) or the non-edible parts of corn like cobs, stalks or stover. The problem is, unlike corn starch, the sugars necessary for fermentation are trapped inside the lignocellulose part of this plant biomass. The key to ending the food versus fuel debate is unlocking the sugars trapped in cellulosic biomass.
, Bioufuel research and development, South San Francisco
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