Kentucky university, General Atomics to explore enzyme, algae process

By Ryan C. Christiansen | January 15, 2009
Researchers at the Center for Renewable and Alternative Fuel Technologies at Eastern Kentucky University in Richmond, Ky., are partnering with San Diego-based General Atomics to study the potential for converting cellulosic biomass into biodiesel and ultimately jet fuel.

General Atomics is best known for its affiliated company General Atomics Aeronautical Systems Inc., the manufacturer of the U.S. military's Predator unmanned aircraft system.

"We are very excited by this opportunity to work together with EKU to develop and deploy a technology that we believe has great economic, environmental and strategic potential," said Bill Davison, vice president of General Atomics' Advanced Process Systems Division, the group overseeing the company's biofuels development programs.

"This partnership links Kentucky and EKU with an international business leader that is turning its focus and considerable resources to biomass-to-fuel initiatives," said university President Doug Whitlock. "This project is different in that it will be focused on the production of biodiesel and ultimately biobased jet fuel using nonfood cellulosic materials in a process that will utilize algae to convert the biomass into bio-oils. The research at EKU will determine both the optimal 'recipe' of cellulosic material and the economic feasibility of the project." He said EKU will also pursue opportunities to develop collaborative relationships with other colleges and universities.

According to Bruce Pratt, chairman of EKU's Department of Agriculture, researchers will look at using commercially available cellulase enzymes to convert cellulosic biomass to sugars, which will then be fed to heterotrophic algae that can convert sugars to oils without photosynthesis. "These are not the phototrophic types (of algae) that use sunlight," he said. "These are membranous-type algae, and they are heterotrophic because we need to feed them the nutrients [they would otherwise get] from the sun. These strains of algae have very high oil content." The oils are then extracted from the algae and converted to biodiesel.

Pratt said the process is similar to how cellulosic ethanol is produced except the end product is biodiesel. "The similarity is that we're using biomass, and we're going to be digesting it to release the sugars," he said. "To get ethanol, you take those sugars and ferment them to make alcohol. Our difference is taking the sugars and feeding them to algae, and having the algae produce the oils."

The researchers are choosing to produce biodiesel instead of ethanol because biodiesel is a key fuel for heavy industry. "With biodiesel, you have a product that is going to have more industrial applications," Pratt said. "Diesel runs industry-our trucks on the road, our trains, our freighters out on the ocean, our jets-whereas ethanol is primarily a gas additive for the auto industry. Both of them are very important."

EKU scientists will analyze multiple nonfood feedstocks-corn stover, woody biomass, switchgrass and sorghum-to determine potential crop yields and the best feedstock for the conversion process. EKU will also identify which land in Kentucky might be cultivated for energy crop production without negatively impacting existing agricultural businesses.

One of the project's goals is to provide Kentucky farmers with alternatives, Whitlock said. In particular, he said the project is "important to Kentucky's farmers looking for cash crops to replace tobacco, to the Commonwealth's carbon footprint and for making Kentucky a leader in an emergent technology." Pratt said tobacco stalks, a crop residue, might also be considered as a feedstock. "Kentucky's current economic situation makes this a critical time for the initiation of such a project," Whitlock said.

Kentucky Gov. Steve Beshear applauded the project. "It is vital that we examine innovative, long-term solutions to the energy issues we face," he said. "Due in part to our fertile farms, Kentucky has the ability to greatly contribute to the research and development of alternative fuel sources."

EKU will also examine the logistics of transporting feedstocks to regional processing facilities and determine the economic impact of energy crop production in the region. Uses for byproducts will also be explored.

As a partner, General Atomics will provide input on the cost of converting various feedstocks to biodiesel and will design the processing system that will produce biodiesel from cellulosic biomass.

According to the university, the project is being funded through a $4 million federal appropriation in the Consolidated Security, Disaster Assistance and Continuing Appropriations Act of 2009, which became law Sept. 30.
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