UMaine Narratives - Advanced Technologies for Forestry and Agriculture
The U.S. Department of Energy awarded more than $712,000 to UMaine chemical and biological engineering professors Peter van Walsum and Clay Wheeler for a three-year project to create a high-quality transportation fuel from renewable biomass resources.
In addition, the nearby Old Town pulp mill, in partnership with UMaine’s Forest Bioproducts Research Institute (FBRI), received a $30 million award in 2008 to design, build, and operate a small-scale commercial integrated biorefinery. The foundation for this project involves the transfer of technology from FBRI labs to private industry, and would create a forest-based cellulosic biofuel value stream for the mill in addition to its normal pulping process. FBRI was also selected to receive $4.8M from the Maine Technology Asset Fund to create a supporting technology center on the mill site.
Hardwood extract from the kraft pulping process and seaweed by-products from extracting carrageenan—primarily used as a natural food additive—will be fermented into organic acids.
The acids will be chemically upgraded into high-quality liquid fuels, such asethanol and butanol.
The result will be superior, more energy- dense fuels with more miles per gallon; less volatility, which equals less air pollution; and easy blending with gasoline, requiring fewer changes to current infrastructure.
What’s Next: Making Plastic From Potatoes
Researchers at UMaine continue the collaboration with the Bangor-based Environmental Health Strategy Center/Tides Center, which recently received a $500,000 Maine Technology Institute Cluster Initiative Award to support a Sustainable Bioplastics Initiative.
This is the third part of a project that started with an MTI seed grant to research the feasibility of making polylactic acid (PLA) plastics—found in yogurt containers and disposable utensils—using the starch from cull potatoes.
UMaine researchers also have discovered that wood by-products from Maine’s forest product facilities, such as pulp mills, are viable sources of fermentable sugars.
The only U.S. plant currently making PLA plastic is inNebraska, using corn to produce the necessary starch. Companies wanting non-GMO materials (most corn based PLA is from GMO corn) don’t have any options, but Maine is poised to fill that void while creating jobs and developing a new industry for the state.