The U.S. government wants more than 30 billion gallons of biofuel to be produced in the next decade,

and a Clarkson professor is setting out to make that an attainable goal.

Sergiy Minko, Egon Matijević Chaired Professor of Chemistry, received nearly $201,000 from the National Science Foundation to develop technology that will make biofuel production less expensive. He will be working with two professors from the University of North Dakota, who were awarded an additional $309,000.

minko_biofuel2Their work will concentrate on finding a way to recycle an enzyme that breaks
down long strands of cellulose, the material found in cell walls, to make the fuels.

“It is difficult to make biofuels competitive with fossil fuels,” says Minko. “To make this competitive with fossil fuels, one should think about how to make the enzyme less expensive. One way is recycling the enzyme.”

Minko said he hopes that half of those 30 billion gallons will come from the method he is trying to create, which would use byproducts created during the decomposition process of plant material to create fuel.

The cellulose would come from any, or all, types of plant matter, from bushes and other types of plants to wood that isn't suitable for building or other uses. Cellulose is the most common organic compound on Earth.

The problem arises in getting the enzyme, which is found only in certain microorganisms and is expensive to extract. The enzyme is thrown away after it is used once, because it now is impossible to separate it from the other materials that cannot be used in the fuel.

That is where Minko and his partners from North Dakota come in. They are looking to create something that releases the enzyme in the beginning of the process and also collects it at the end. That way, the enzyme would be contained in something large enough that it can be separated from the plant wastes.

“We cannot use the enzyme forever, but if we can use it four or five times, it will decrease the cost,” Minko says. “As soon as we see that it works properly, it can be a more economical decision.”

If they are successful, the process can be replicated anywhere in the world where there is plant life.

The funding will be used during the next three years.

From The Watertown Daily Times, October 26, 2010. Used by Permission. All rights reserved.

Enzyme extraction and recycling

The process Minko and his research partners are using to recycle the enzyme uses small capsules, like beads, to release the enzymes into the biomass to make the ethanol, and later the same capsules will collect the enzymes to use the next time. Since the capsule is larger than the enzyme, it’s easier to collect from the biomass.

Their research focuses on two specific problems: signaling the capsules to release the enzymes and getting the capsules to selectively extract the enzymes
at the end of the process.

“If you collect enzymes it’s normally difficult to release them, but in principle, it’s possible,” says Minko. “The extraction process is difficult because it’s easy to pick up the wrong material instead of the enzyme.”