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Home - Harnessing Nature – Fall 2009


BiofuelOne day soon, seaweed and trees could be fueling the cars we drive, based on research being done at the University of Maine to create a variety of biofuels.

“Forest biomass represents a significant renewable resource in Maine,” says Hemant Pendse, director of UMaine’s Forest Bioproducts Research Initiative. “Efficient use of this resource using our existing forest products industry manufacturing assets will help us save Maine jobs and build new businesses.”

The U.S. Department of Energy recently awarded more than $712,000 to 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. 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, such as acetic and butyric. The acids will be chemically upgraded into high-quality liquid fuels, such as ethanol and butanol.

“The technology uses a robust biological conversion process, which requires no sterile operating conditions, no genetically modified organisms or any breakthrough in enzyme technology,” van Walsum says. “This means it can be implemented more quickly and, we expect, with less expense. It also means that the system should be able to handle a wide variety of biomass feedstocks and process different feedstocks at different times of the year, if necessary.”

The bioconversion technology also has been demonstrated to work with problem wastes, such as sewage sludge and animal manures.

The nation behaves well if it treats the natural resources as assets which it must turn over to the next generation increased, and not impaired, in value.
- Theodore Roosevelt

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.

The researchers also hope to use the technology to produce jet fuel.

Industrial collaborators in Maine include Old Town Fuel and Fiber, a nearby kraft pulp mill in Old Town, and FMC BioPolymer of Rockland, a division of FMC Corp., and the only seaweed carrageenan processing facility in North America.

“We’ve been quite active in pursuing alternative uses of this by-product,” says Dennis Healy, an environmental compliance specialist who, like several other FMC BioPolymer employees, is a UMaine graduate. “It’s a good fit for our company.”

Chemical engineering Professor Mark Holtzapple of Texas A&M University will consult on the technology. Two students and a postdoctoral researcher from UMaine will undertake most of the laboratory and modeling work.

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