Revolutionary Biofuels Research at UW-Madison

How Biofuel Research at UW-Madison could move us to a Cleaner Energy Future

By Brett Adkins Photos by Matthew Wisniewski / Wisconsin Energy Institute Print Design by Tom McAdams
The flow-through reaction setup progressively dissolves biomass producing fractions that are rich in (from left to right) lignin monomers, hemicellulose and cellulose-derived sugars. Photo by Matthew Wisniewski / Wisconsin Energy Institute

On most days, we rarely take the time to pause and realize the incredibly extensive and important research that takes place here at the UW-Madison. With leading experts in fields spanning from psychology to nanomaterials and hundreds of millions of dollars put into basic research, our professors, faculty and students are consistently making important discoveries and innovations.

James Dumesic, professor of chemical and biological engineering, and Jeremy Luterbacher, who received his postdoctoral degree at the UW-Madison, along with their team of fellow researchers, are discovering a revolutionary method for catalyzing a reaction that humans have been inducing for centuries.

Jeremy Luterbacher, a UW-Madison postdoctoral researcher, standing in front of the Dumesic lab's biomass reactor at Engineering Hall on the University of Wisconsin–Madison campus. Photo by Matthew Wisniewski / Wisconsin Energy Institute

Luterbacher and Professor Dumesic have discovered a cheaper, more environmentally friendly way of catalyzing the deconstruction of polymers of sugars in plants. These deconstructed polymers can then be used for synthesizing biofuel.

Our current economy depends heavily on carbon sources, particularly petroleum, which is used in plastics, clothing, gasoline and countless other products. According to Luterbacher, the problem is that “we need to use carbon products,” but “there are only so many carbon sources.” Besides petroleum, there are CO2 and plants. Because so much of the weight of plants is sugars, Luterbacher and Professor Dumesic are trying to go after the sugars as a fuel source.

We need to use carbon products, but there are only so many carbon sources.

Jeremey Luterbacher

In the past, this process has been much easier said than done due to the requirement for highly concentrated acids and enzymes that have made the process expensive and environmentally burdensome. This is where Luterbacher and Professor Dumesic’s research comes in. “What’s neat here is that we found that with GVL, a molecule that we can produce from the plant itself as a solvent, we are able to promote this deconstruction with very little acid,” Luterbacher said. So what’s the significance of this discovery?

UW-Madison researchers James Dumesic and Jeremy Luterbacher examine a vial containing the light colored concentrated sugar solution. Photo by Matthew Wisniewski / Wisconsin Energy Institute

The importance lies in the fact that their process of deconstructing the sugars with a chemical found in plants and with little acid could prove to be roughly 10 percent cheaper and significantly more environmentally friendly than current processes.

However, Luterbacher says that what he is excited about is not the number, but rather that in their attempt to replace a large fraction of the petroleum market, which has been going on for 50 years, they have discovered a new entry point into the market that is economically comparable to current processes. As a result, their process could open up a “whole range of uses” and could lead to further research and applications in other fields.

According to Luterbacher, it’s important to add another way because it increases the likelihood of being able to produce and get to where you’re trying to go.

Luterbacher holds a vial containing light colored concentrated sugar solution, which spontaneously separates from the dark GVL when high salt or high sugar concentrations are present or when liquid carbon dioxide is added to the mixture. Photo by Matthew Wisniewski / Wisconsin Energy Institute

There are still many challenges facing the team of researchers. Having just accomplished the lab step, the first in a four-step process, they are ready to move on to the pre-pilot plant step. They will increase production levels to see if any red lights appear to suggest that their process might not work on a larger scale. Following that, they will move into a full pilot plant and then, if everything goes well, to a full plant.

The research being done by Luterbacher and Professor Dumesic is revolutionary and could become an integral component of the biofuel energy equation in the near future. Providing alternative sources of energy is becoming increasingly important, and Luterbacher and Professor Dumesic are helping move us to a cleaner, more diverse energy market.