WASHINGTON, Feb. 10, 2016 - Researchers at the Energy Department’s BioEnergy Science Center hope to boost the efficiency of cellulosic biofuel production by using unconventional bacteria that can efficiently break down inedible plant matter for conversion to biofuels.

The team analyzed the ability of six microorganisms to solubilize potential bioenergy feedstocks, such as switchgrass, that have evolved strong defenses against biological and chemical attack. Solubilization prepares the plant feedstocks for subsequent fermentation and use as fuel.

“Starting with nature’s best biomass-solubilizing systems may enable a reduction in the amount of non-biological processing required to produce biofuels,” says Oak Ridge National Laboratory (ORNL) study coauthor Brian Davison. “We’re asking the question – what are nature’s best biocatalysts?”

The analysis demonstrated that under carefully controlled conditions, a microbe called Clostridium thermocellum is twice as effective as fungal enzymes used by industry today. The researchers also tested the different microbes’ performance with minimal pretreatment of the plant materials, indicating it may be possible to reduce or eliminate the use of heat and chemicals that make the feedstock accessible to biological processing. 

“Eliminating both enzyme addition and conventional pretreatment is a potential game-changer,” says Lee Lynd, an engineering professor at Dartmouth and a study co-author.

The research team also considered the use of mechanical disruption techniques such as milling to complement the microorganisms’ biological breakdown.

The researchers note that the study, the most comprehensive comparative analysis of its type to date and recently published in Biotechnology for Biofuels, was designed to provide indications of intrinsic capability and performance under industrial conditions. They hope their findings will guide the development of advanced processes to lower costs and improve the efficiency of commercial biofuel production.


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