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Sound Engineering: How engineers can advance biofuels

Dan Noguera, a professor of civil and environmental engineering at the UW-Madison College of Engineering, is working with the Great Lakes Bioenergy Research Center to create next-generation biofuels. Noguera and GLBRC director Tim Donohue explain how an interdisciplinary approach can not only advance biofuels on a scientific level, but make them more practical in the energy marketplace.

Scott Gordon: A professor of civil and environmental engineering is helping clean-energy researchers pursue next-generation biofuels. As biofuel research focuses more and more on harnessing the power of microorganisms, UW-Madison College of Engineering professor Daniel Noguera Is lending his extensive experience in areas like wastewater treatment.

Daniel Noguera: It’s a departure from the typical wastewater engineering, but it uses a lot of the same methodologies, a lot of the same mindset of having organisms being able to consume large amounts of organic matter.

Scott Gordon: Working with the Great Lakes Bioenergy Research Center, a federally funded clean energy initiative partially based at UW-Madison, Noguera is focusing on how to get the most raw material for biofuels from a particular species of bacteria. That raw material is fatty acids, and the organism produces fatty acids through photosynthesis. 

Daniel Noguera: But we have a problem. When we try to do this in high concentrations, anybody that has worked with wastewater would know that high concentrations of organisms within a culture would essentially prevent light penetration.

Scott Gordon: Luckily, Noguera and his collaborators have discovered a genetic mutation that allows the organism to produce fatty acids without light. But how does that bring us closer to a world in which biofuels are commonly used? Tim Donohue, a UW-Madison bacteriologist and Director of the GLBRC, says it all hinges on an inter-disciplinary approach.

Tim Donohue: Now that we’ve identified these mutants, we have the ability, with models that Dan’s people help us start and now we’re working on together with joint students, to try and figure out what genetic changes have occurred in those mutants. And then, with Dan’s expertise as an engineer and a bioreactor engineer, we’re actually taking these mutants from small-scale cultures like we would normally grow them in, and putting them in bioreactors and chemostats and seeing if we can keep them going a long time to over-produce and make a lot of these compounds.

Scott Gordon: Donohue’s focus is mostly on the genetic and biological side of things, but he knows that engineers can help the biofuels industry succeed in a competitive market.

Tim Donohue: It’s going to be more difficult for a bio-refinery to be successful if plant biomass comes in the front gate and they only make one product coming out the rear end. That’s not how an oil refinery works. An oil refinery takes a barrel of fuel in the front gate, and in the rear end they make some automotive fuel, they make some heavy diesel for trucks, they make some light diesel for aviation, and they make a lot of chemicals for the chemical industry. So they have a spectrum of products. We think a bio-refinery will be more economically viable if it works more like an oil refinery.

Scott Gordon: For more information about the Great Lakes Bioenergy Research Center, visit GLBRC.org.

Scott Gordon
10/7/2013