UK Researchers Explore Lignin as Major Biofuel

LEXINGTON, Ky. (Aug. 28, 2009) − University of Kentucky researchers have received a $1.98 million grant to develop new processes to convert a plant cell component to liquid fuels and chemicals, offsetting the demand for liquids currently derived from petroleum.

The project targets lignin, which is part of a plant cell more energy dense than cellulose. Cellulose, a different plant component, is currently the main source for biofuels. While cellulose is easily fermented to alcohol, lignin doesn’t convert using existing fermentation processes. The project focus is to develop efficient and effective thermochemical (heat and pressure) methods to convert lignin to use what is now a waste stream.

The researchers seek to establish a sound understanding of the chemistry of deconstructing lignin at the molecular level. They also will attempt to engineer plant cells to make it easier and use less energy to process lignin into fuels and chemicals.

Biomass potentially could produce more than 60 billion gallons of fuel annually -- replacing nearly a third of the gasoline Americans use.

The four-year project is based at the UK Center for Applied Energy Research (CAER), and is headed by CAER Director Rodney Andrews. The research team includes Mark Meier of the Department of Chemistry in the College of Arts & Sciences, Seth DeBolt of the Department of Horticulture in the College of Agriculture, and Mark Crocker and Samuel Morton, both of CAER.

“The development of new thermochemical routes as an alternative to fermentation, to convert biomass into fuels and chemicals is likely the fast path to a sustainable and economical biofuels industry. This is especially true for Kentucky, which has significant forestry and agricultural resources,” Andrews said.

The project is being supported by the National Science Foundation with funding made available by the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009, the economic stimulus program.