About 220 first-generation corn ethanol plants that produce fuel ethanol using starch operate in the United States. Ethanol production is expected to continue to grow over the next several years, since the Energy Independence and Security Act of 2007 required 36 billion gallons of renewable fuel use by 2022.
But due to limited availability of corn grain in the U.S., there is a slowdown in building new corn ethanol processing plants. This has motivated existing plant owners to improve the efficiency of corn ethanol processing with minimal changes in their processing steps and with limited investment.
That’s where the partnership between Michigan State University and Valicor began.
Valicor, a global leader in fluid recovery and regeneration solutions, sponsored MSU researchers who are working to improve the corn ethanol yield by using the sugar present in corn fiber.
The technology — led by Dr. Venkatesh Balan — is called RaBIT, for Rapid Bioconversion with Integrated Recycle Technology. It has the potential to enhance biofuel productivity and reduce capital costs by shortening the pretreated biomass conversion time from the typical 7-10 days to just 2 days.
Three major issues impeding commercial biochemical production of cellulosic ethanol are high enzyme loading requirements, slow xylose fermentation, and low ethanol production. This technology attempts to address all three issues by reusing unadsorbed enzymes and separating quickly digested biomass from recalcitrant biomass thus reducing the biomass conversion times.
By partnering with MSU in the early stages of the project, Valicor gets the benefit of the technology and the discoveries that result from it.
Dr. Balan worked closely with Dr. Ray Roach, senior research scientist in Valicor, and they decide whether the results of each project milestone are economically viable prior to moving forward to the subsequent milestones.
The technology’s development is also fueled by funding from the Great Lakes Bioenergy Research Center. The GLBRC is led by the University of Wisconsin-Madison, with Michigan State University as a major partner, and is one of three bioenergy research centers established in 2007 by the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE). GLBRC performs the basic research that generates technology to convert cellulosic biomass to ethanol and other advanced biofuels.
Partnerships like the one between MSU and Valicor pave the way for more such collaborations, enabling companies to invest directly in the creation of new technologies.