Adding Fungi to the Ethanol Production Process Could Reduce Energy Costs by One-Third, Iowa State Researchers Claim

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photo by Jess Johnson

Though I'm not an evangelist for biofuels by any means—using food crops to make fuels to feed our addiction to the automobile will likely go down as one of the biggest missteps in the green revolution—but some new research done at Iowa State University may at least reduce the energy required to produce ethanol.

According to professor Hans van Leeuwen, "The process could change ethanol production in dry-grind plants so much that energy costs can be reduced by as much as one-third." Engineer Live has more details on this research:
Fungi Key to Reducing Energy and Water Required to Produce Ethanol
Van Leeuwen and his team found that by adding a fungus, Rhizopus microsporus, to the leftover liquid of the ethanol distillation process, known as thin sillage, and letting it feed and grow there, 80% of the organic matter and all of the solids in the sillage can be removed. This would allow for more of the sillage to be recycled back into the ethanol production process. By doing this, Van Leeuwen estimates that ethanol plants could save collectively $800 million per year in energy costs, and improve the energy balance of ethanol production.

The added benefit is that water consumption in the ethanol industry could be reduced as well: By an estimated 10 billion gallons annually for the industry as a whole.

The cost of implementing such a system in a commercial ethanol plant? According to Van Leeuwen, it would cost approximately $11 million for a plant that produces 100 million gallons per year. He adds that the investment would pay itself off in about six months due to the energy saved.

Currently this technology is awaiting a patent and investors to back the idea so that it can be proven to work on a commercial scale.

Food Versus Fuel, Again
While improving the energy balance and reducing the water needed to make ethanol from corn is good in and of itself, let's remember that according to the World Bank using food crops to produce biofuels is largely to blame for increases in food costs over the past several months, and according to Oxfam, biofuels have pushed 30 million people in to poverty.

Unless we develop better ways to use non-food feedstocks to produce biofuels, the pressure on food prices is unlikely to decrease. We may be using green power to drive to the supermarket, but more and more people in the world will find it harder to purchase anything once they arrive.

via :: Engineer Live