ISU Headlines

Researchers seek to create ethanol from Idaho agricultural waste

Posted February 9, 2009

They are not exactly alchemists trying to turn lead into gold, but almost: researchers from Idaho’s three largest public universities are seeking to create ethanol from the Gem state’s agricultural waste.

And they have a realistic shot at converting potato, sugar beet and other agricultural waste – perhaps even cow manure – into a fuel that can run in your car.

Tim Magnuson, Ph.D., Idaho State University associate professor of microbiology, has received $27,000 from the Center for Advanced Energy Studies –Idaho National Laboratory for a collaborative project titled “Development of Lignocellulosic Ethanol Production Potential in Idaho.”

This is a collaborative project between Idaho State University, Boise State University, the University of Idaho and the INL.

“We want to emphasize that this study focuses on using Idaho raw materials,” Magnuson said. “A lot of this material is waste that we hope we can convert to useful energy.”

Idaho State University’s role in the project, funded by the Department of Energy, is to discover and characterize microorganisms that convert agricultural waste to ethanol.  There is the potential to convert the waste from potatoes, sugar beets and other major Idaho crops into fuel, which would reduce waste and become an energy source.

“We have candidate microorganisms for the study that can metabolize those materials in waste products,” Magnuson said. “We’re using microbiological processes to convert waste byproducts into ethanol.”

Various bacteria can break down sugars in plants to make ethanol, in a process similar to using fermentation to create alcohol. Idaho State University researchers are right now testing a variety of microbes in their laboratories that can metabolize various waste products into ethanol. Once the best microbes for doing this are identified, the researchers will just be getting started.

“The challenge of this project is taking everything from the laboratory to the pilot scale to actually produce ethanol,” Magnuson said. “This project incorporates basic research to discover the proper microbes up to applied engineering that will produce the fuel.”

Once Idaho State researchers discovery the best microbes for converting agricultural waste into ethanol, Boise State University researchers, led by assistant professor Kevin Feris, Ph.D., will work on encapsulating them in form that they can be used to convert waste. Greg Bala, a scientist at the INL, will assist in this area.

At the University of Idaho, Jon Van Gerpen, professor and chair of the Department of Biological and Agricultural Engineering, will then scale-up the process using the microbes to actually produce ethanol.