Don't worry, you won't be tested on this.

Michigan State University scientists have found a biofuel production method that the institution says boosts energy from the production process by a factor of 20.

Gemma Reguera, a microbiologist at MSU, led an effort that uses – stay with us – a combination of microbial electrolysis cells (MECs) and multiple forms of bacteria to ferment agricultural waste into ethanol. More details are available below, but, in a nutshell, the process does a better job of removing waste products while recovering more energy from the fermentation process used in the production of ethanol.

The merits of boosting ethanol production as a way to cut foreign-oil dependence have long been debated by scientists, ecologists and anyone else willing to join the fray. Advocates say more ethanol production cuts gas prices, while others have criticized government subsidies that until last year were given to ethanol producers and have expressed concern over the environmental effects of producing corn-based fuel. Whatever side of the debate you're on in that fight, it's hard to argue with a more efficient process, especially one that's 20 times better. Wait, 20 times better? Yup, we just double-checked. 20 times better. Yikes.
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New biofuel process dramatically improves energy recovery

A new biofuel production process created by Michigan State University researchers produces energy more than 20 times higher than existing methods.


EAST LANSING, Mich. - A new biofuel production process created by Michigan State University researchers produces 20 times more energy than existing methods.

The results, published in the current issue of Environmental Science and Technology, showcase a novel way to use microbes to produce biofuel and hydrogen, all while consuming agricultural wastes.

Gemma Reguera, MSU microbiologist, has developed bioelectrochemical systems known as microbial electrolysis cells, or MECs, using bacteria to breakdown and ferment agricultural waste into ethanol. Reguera's platform is unique because it employs a second bacterium, which, when added to the mix, removes all the waste fermentation byproducts or nonethanol materials while generating electricity.

Similar microbial fuel cells have been investigated before. However, maximum energy recoveries from corn stover, a common feedstock for biofuels, hover around 3.5 percent. Reguera's platform, despite the energy invested in chemical pretreatment of the corn stover, averaged 35 to 40 percent energy recovery just from the fermentation process, said Reguera, an AgBioResearch scientist who co-authored the paper with Allison Spears, MSU graduate student.

"This is because the fermentative bacterium was carefully selected to degrade and ferment agricultural wastes into ethanol efficiently and to produce byproducts that could be metabolized by the electricity-producing bacterium," Reguera said. "By removing the waste products of fermentation, the growth and metabolism of the fermentative bacterium also was stimulated. Basically, each step we take is custom-designed to be optimal."

The second bacterium, Geobacter sulfurreducens, generates electricity. The electricity, however, isn't harvested as an output. It is used to generate hydrogen in the MEC to increase the energy recovery process even more, Reguera said.

"When the MEC generates hydrogen, it actually doubles the energy recoveries," she said. "We increased energy recovery to 73 percent. So the potential is definitely there to make this platform attractive for processing agricultural wastes."

Reguera's fuel cells use corn stover treated by the ammonia fiber expansion process, an advanced pretreatment technology pioneered at MSU. AFEX is an already proven method that was developed by Bruce Dale, MSU professor of chemical engineering and materials science.

Dale is currently working to make AFEX viable on a commercial scale.

In a similar vein, Reguera is continuing to optimize her MECs so they, too, can be scaled up on a commercial basis. Her goal is to develop decentralized systems that can help process agricultural wastes. Decentralized systems could be customized at small to medium scales (scales such as compost bins and small silages, for example) to provide an attractive method to recycle the wastes while generating fuel for farms.

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Michigan State University has been working to advance the common good in uncommon ways for more than 150 years. One of the top research universities in the world, MSU focuses its vast resources on creating solutions to some of the world's most pressing challenges, while providing life-changing opportunities to a diverse and inclusive academic community through more than 200 programs of study in 17 degree-granting colleges.


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  • 29 Comments
      greg
      • 3 Years Ago
      If only smart chick's ruled the world...
      Shecky Vegas
      • 3 Years Ago
      Heh, heh. Come to Butthead...
      Dan Frederiksen
      • 3 Years Ago
      something got lost in translation. it's probably like the battery claims where they are talking some anode material they say is 10x more energy dense but the battery as a whole is 1% more energy dense. it's bs
      PeterScott
      • 3 Years Ago
      I wouldn't call Corn Stover a common biofuel feedstock, it is commonly talked about, but seldom utilized Cellulosic feedstock. Even a a massive improvement in abysmal numbers on stover side still might not improve EROI enough to matter. I am skeptical of these claims impacting real work EROI enough, but if it did, I would change my tune on domestic Ethanol. Why I am so opposed to the current Corn Ethanol boondoggle is that it doesn't produce enough energy to even sustain it's own production. It only exceeds 1:1 if they count cattle feed as energy. If domestic ethanol production could be produced with EROI on the order of 10:1 instead of the currently absolutely useless number near 1:1, that changes it from a boondoggle to a viable source of energy. Even 2:1, or 3:1 is borderline useless in a society geared toward 10:1 EROI energy sources. Domestic Ethanol struggling somewhere near 1:1 is a pathetic joke. It is corporate welfare at best.
        Allch Chcar
        • 3 Years Ago
        @PeterScott
        Corn Ethanol is largely a way to utilized Coal and Natural Gas resources for transport fuel. Therefore I'm more inclined to worry about cost per BTU than the actual fossil fuel based energy consumption. The recent survey of Ethanol plants by the USDA did show a marginal return on fossil energy investment but nothing near modern Oil fields. Now the 10+ year old numbers showed it was marginally more energy return on investment. But you really have to consider energy for livestock feed in the process as a portion of the corn acreage devoted to Ethanol would still have gone to livestock feed.
        Fgergergrergr
        • 3 Years Ago
        @PeterScott
        Using decade old EROI numbers for ethanol production is not being truthful. Anyone have the EROI numbers for tar sand oil production? Probably less then current oil production process.
          PeterScott
          • 3 Years Ago
          @Fgergergrergr
          Ethanol production will likely dip under 1:1 with this years drought.
          PeterScott
          • 3 Years Ago
          @Fgergergrergr
          Now I get voted down for pointing out ethanol production/efficiency will be negatively affect by drought.
          Joeviocoe
          • 3 Years Ago
          @Fgergergrergr
          The downvote gremlin strikes again. I fixed it for you.
        Marcopolo
        • 3 Years Ago
        @PeterScott
        PeterScott Your example is confined to the US experience. (But accurate). The main problem for Bio-fuels is economic feedstock production. Until this is resolved the bio-fuel industry in the US is doomed to be a subsidized industry, with little real impact.
          Joeviocoe
          • 3 Years Ago
          @Marcopolo
          They are working on it Marco, very hard. And making some progress.
          PeterScott
          • 3 Years Ago
          @Marcopolo
          I will never get voting here. I get voted up, and you get voted down, when we are essentially saying the same thing... I tried to vote you back up, but my vote didn't work (seems to happen most times I try it).
      Mike Fischer
      • 3 Years Ago
      If only the technology could be put to use for mass production purposes, will it benefit us. For every laboratory research that yields promising results, commercialization takes a long time. Twitter: @unocardealers
      Mart
      • 3 Years Ago
      What happens when you stop tilling "agricultural waste" back into the soil for decades? You have to use petro-based frtilizers to restore the lost nutrients, no?
        Joeviocoe
        • 3 Years Ago
        @Mart
        No, not necessarily. There are a few good, sustainable farming practices that can produce either food or energy crops without damaging or rendering the land or adjacent environment, infertile. The problems usually come when farmers (or large agro businesses) get greedy and impatient and over farm or over fertilize the land to make larger profits sooner at the expense of a sustainable future.
          Letstakeawalk
          • 3 Years Ago
          @Joeviocoe
          The "Three Sisters" garden is very popular around here. http://www.reneesgarden.com/articles/3sisters.html
      Ford Future
      • 3 Years Ago
      Smart chicks are hot.
      • 3 Years Ago
      Bill Clinton, Al Gore & Senator Obama supported the California 2006 Prop. 87, a GMO corn ethanol welfare program. Bill, Al, have changed opinion on the ethanol mandate, I wonder if California will make this the time for CHANGE? I support a waiver of the ethanol mandate, voluntary use of ethanol in my gas. Federal ethanol policy increases Government motors oil use and Big oil profit. It is reported that today California is using Brazil sugar cane ethanol at $0.16 per gal increase over using GMO corn fuel ethanol. In this game the cars and trucks get to pay and Big oil profits are the result that may be ready for change. We do NOT support AB 523 or SB 1396 unless the ethanol mandate is changed to voluntary ethanol in our gas. Folks that pay more at the pump for less from Cars, trucks, food, water & air need better, it is time. The car tax of AB 118 Nunez is just a simple Big oil welfare program, AAA questioned the policy and some folks still agree. AB 523 & SB 1326 are just a short put (waiver) from better results. GOOGLE: Prop 87 (510) 537-1796
      Letstakeawalk
      • 3 Years Ago
      Burying the lede: This group has dramatically improved a microbial fuel cell, in which microbes are used to produce hydrogen. "When the MEC generates hydrogen, it actually doubles the energy recoveries," she said. "We increased energy recovery to 73 percent. So the potential is definitely there to make this platform attractive for processing agricultural wastes." Reguera's fuel cells use corn stover treated by the ammonia fiber expansion process, an advanced pretreatment technology pioneered at MSU. AFEX is an already proven method that was developed by Bruce Dale, MSU professor of chemical engineering and materials science."
        Marcopolo
        • 3 Years Ago
        @Letstakeawalk
        Letstakeawalk We live in interesting times! With alternate technologies are advancing so rapidly, the future will be exciting beyond imagination !.
      Chris M
      • 3 Years Ago
      If I understand it correctly, they are using corn stover (leftover corncobs, stalks and leaves), pre-treating it with ammonia to loosen the fibers, then fermenting it with a bacteria that produces ethanol. The waste from that bacteria is food for a different bacteria that produces a weak electric current used to electrolyze water and produce hydrogen. Hmm, they're probably planning to use that hydrogen to produce the ammonia for the pre-treatment!
        Letstakeawalk
        • 3 Years Ago
        @Chris M
        "The waste from that bacteria is food for a different bacteria that produces a weak electric current used to electrolyze water and produce hydrogen." Nope, that's not how it's done. They aren't electrolyzing water with the current generated by the bacteria. “With some electrical input, we can provide sufficient energy to the system so the electrons react with protons in the fermentation broth to make hydrogen,” Reguera continues. “When H2 is the output of a system, we refer to the electrochemical system as a MEC. The beauty of this process is that it takes less energy to produce H2 electrochemically in a MEC than to produce it fermentatively using bacteria or by electrolysis.” http://biomassmagazine.com/articles/7868/fermentation-process-converts-biomass-into-liquid-fuels-hydrogen
      EZEE
      • 3 Years Ago
      In order... Yes, 3 drinks yes, heck yes, and yes.
        JP
        • 3 Years Ago
        @EZEE
        4 drinks, hell no, yes, and no. After your ranking I no longer want to see the pics from your threesome.
          Joeviocoe
          • 3 Years Ago
          @JP
          Drinking their Ethanol, maybe
          EZEE
          • 3 Years Ago
          @JP
          The red head is four drinks? Dude...
        PR
        • 3 Years Ago
        @EZEE
        You guys all suck. Too much machismo for your own good. All four of them would laugh at you directly to your face if you even tried. They would leave you ****-faced drunk looking stupid on the curb. looooosers!
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