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Science, Health, Tech

A more environmentally-friendly, cost-effective way to produce ethanol

University of Delaware researchers and a biofuels lab are making it more cost-effective to produce ethanol.

When scientists make biofuels, they use fermentation. But during this process, they lose valuable carbon that is released — and that means losing money.

UD graduate student Alan Fast and White Dog Labs have come up with a way to recapture the lost carbon, making fermentation potentially 50 percent more efficient.

Fast said recapturing the carbon reduces potential impacts on climate change.

They took a process called mixotrophy – the process of consuming gases and sugar at the same time — and figured out that it was possible to confine carbon fixation with traditional fermentation processes. White Dog Labs took it one step further and engineered a chemical production process to generate acetone. They studied how mixotrophy could improve the amount of acetone produced.

Fast said this could be applied to a number of chemical processes, not just biofuels.

“It could also be used for other chemical production — butanol, acetone production, or really any other number of biochemical people are interested in making,” he said.

White Dog Labs CEO Bryan Tracy sees potential beyond biofuels, noting this can be applied to a number of chemical processes — like the creation of acetone.

"(Acetone) goes into things that impact your daily life," Tracy said.

Acetone is involved in making plexi-glass. It’s also used as nail polish remover.

“These organisms that we work with, they can be seen as a starting point to potentially make lots of different biochemicals from,” Tracy said. “It’s not just acetone...they go into things that impact your daily life.”

They also hope it can ease concerns of climate change and how fossil fuels contribute to it. Forty-five million tons of ethanol is produced in the United Sates, which some say is not healthy for the environmental.

“We really need to be focusing on these growing concerns of climate change and how our actions and the consumption of fossil fuels are contributing to that,” Fast said.

One way to reduce the effect on the climate is switching to biologically-based fuels.

Fast said the whole country could benefit from a more efficient way to produce biofuels. The group would like to market this process to produce millions of gallons of acetone per year.

Journal reference: Shawn Jones, Alan Fast, Ellinor Carlson, Carrissa Wiedel, Jennifer Au, Maciek Antoniewicz, Eleftherios Papoutsakis, & Bryan Tracy. CO2 Fixation by Anaerobic Non-Photosynthetic Mixotrophy for Improved Carbon Conversion. Nature Communications 7. 2016: 10.1038/ncomms12800.