New U. of Colorado research may reduce renewable fuel costs

Researchers at the University of Colorado at Boulder have developed a novel process involving the production of ethanol that could lead to a significant decrease in the cost of renewable fuel.

Associate Professor Kathleen Danna of the molecular, cellular and developmental biology department and her research team created a new technique they expect to produce large amounts of low-cost, highly effective enzymes vital for the conversion of plant cellulose into ethanol. Successfully producing large quantities of the enzymes could significantly lower costs for the processing of renewable fuels from plant biomass, said Danna.

"By promoting the development of renewable fuels, our work should have significant economic and environmental impact," she said. "An established biofuels industry will strengthen U.S. agriculture and reduce our countrys dependence on foreign oil."

Ethanol, also known as ethyl alcohol, is a clean-burning fuel that is used as a gasoline additive in some states like Colorado during the high-pollution months in winter, said Danna. In Brazil, ethanol has been used on an experimental basis to run fleets of cars with specially modified engines using fuel made up of 95 percent ethanol.

Although the ethanol currently used as a fuel additive in America is derived from cornstarch rather than cellulose via biomass conversion, cornstarch as a source of raw material would not be able to meet the demand if ethanol were to become a major transportation fuel, she said. While there is a competing use for cornstarch -- food -- the supply of plant biomass is so large it often has a "negative cost" in that households, industry and government often must pay for its disposal, Danna said.

Cellulose is the principal structural material in the cell walls of all land plants. Cellulose -- essentially, repeating chains of glucose -- needs to be broken down into smaller segments in order to produce ethanol.

A class of enzymes known as cellulas

Contact: Kathleen Danna
University of Colorado at Boulder

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