Small, rural energy producers could benefit from a new biofuel production process created by Michigan State University
researchers that produces 20 times more energy than existing methods. Their work demonstrates how microbes can be used to produce biofuel and hydrogen, all while consuming agricultural wastes.
It opens the possibility of using lignocellulose wastes for ethanol, rather than using corn,” says Gemma Reguera, the MSU microbiologist who has developed bioelectrochemical systems known as microbial electrolysis cells, or MECs. “At the same time, we are recycling waste and providing a technology that can decentralize biomass waste processing at small to medium scales. We are also recovering much of the energy stored in the waste and converting it into readily usable and storable fuels such as ethanol and hydrogen gas. As we scale up the technology, we can envision more applications such as their integration into ethanol biorefineries.”
Reguera’s work is unique because it utilizes a second bacterium that removes all the waste fermentation byproducts or nonethanol materials while generating electricity. Though similar microbial fuel cells have been investigated, Reguera’s platform averages 35 to 40 percent energy recovery just from the fermentation process, rather than the 3.5 percent that has been achieved in the past.
“I am always concerned about how many rural areas of the country have been left out of the bioenergy portfolio,” says Reguera. “When we think about bioethanol, we think big (biorefineries) and forget about the small producers. I think sustainability and bioenergy needs to reach all.”
Reguera co-authored the paper with MSU graduate student Allison Spears.