A group of University of Wisconsin researchers have constructed a way to create sugar chains that can be used as a reliable biofuel source.

Using a nonedible plant-derived chemical, gamma valerolactone, plants can be taken apart to create sugars that have the potential to be upgraded to biofuels, Jeremy Luterbacher and James Dumesic, researchers working on the project, said.

“Many times when trying to transform the nonedible plant material into a biofuel, most of the weight of the compound is in the chains of sugars,” Luterbacher said. “They are extremely difficult to break down.”

Dumesic said this process has been known for a very long time because people have been fermenting alcohol for many years. The first step of the process is always getting the sugars, he said.

In the past, chemicals have assisted the process and have made it very expensive, but the chemical GVL makes the deconstruction much easier and less acid is needed to undergo the process, Dumesic said.

What makes this research industrially interesting is that GVL can be reused, which will cut costs. When using GVL, the plant can be deconstructed with the chemical, then separated and reused, Dumesic said. 

Luterbacher and Dumesic said they became interested in this topic when they realized how fast the reaction rates of the process were when using GVL and how they were able to minimize costs in the scheme of things.

Dumesic said petroleum is beginning to get left behind due to its effect on the environment, so a new source was needed in the area of biofuel study. A sustainable source of carbon should be coming from a nonedible source, Dumesic and Luterbacher said.

“The current focus is to convert nonedible biomass sources but this is not the key step, the key step is taking the nonedible biomass and releasing the sugars from it,” Dumesic said. “This process can be extremely expensive. With GVL as a solvent, it is very reactive and very small amounts can be used.”

Research is planned to expand within the next year with the help of the Wisconsin Alumni Research Foundation, Luterbacher said. The researchers hope to increase production from 20 milliliters of sugar solution per run to one liter, Luterbacher said.

While the process may be tedious, Luterbacher said ensuring perfection was key to grab the attention of investors. The pilot plant will likely launch in the next two to five years, he said.

The only way the lab could have been successful was with the strong group of colleagues UW provided, Dumesic said. He said UW provides a solid platform to work on a project like his because of the way it fosters teamwork.

“There is such great camaraderie, with professors and students alike, that make a strong team,” Dumesic said.