Researchers study energy from renewable materials

Farm Forum

SIOUX FALLS, S.D. (AP) – University researchers in South Dakota and North Dakota have been awarded $6 million to see whether they can turn the molecular building blocks of grass, trees and other organic material into detergents, plastics and other items found at the supermarket.

The National Science Foundation’s Experimental Program to Stimulate Competitive Research (EPSCoR) is giving $3 million to each of its affiliates in the two states to pay for a collaborative effort meant to find renewable replacements to petrochemicals in various products, the Argus Leader reported.

The three-year grant brings together scientists from South Dakota State University, South Dakota School of Mines, North Dakota State University and the University of North Dakota in a joint venture called Dakota Bioprocessing Consortium, or DakotaBioCon.

Their mission: Help steer industry from fossil-fuel-based chemicals to low-cost renewable building blocks.

“We’re looking at renewable materials … switchgrass, agricultural waste, even urban waste … as sources that could replace petroleum,” said Jim Rice, director of South Dakota EPSCoR. “If we can do it cheaply enough, the potential impacts are pretty large.”

In South Dakota, researchers will work with lignin, one of the most common organic molecules on the planet. Its function in the framework of a tree or plant is what makes them stand up straight, Rice said.

Doug Raynie, a research associate professor in chemistry at SDSU, calls lignin a waste product with a value of a few cents a pound, but also a useful and large polymer made up of carbon, oxygen and hydrogen.

“We intend to use a number of techniques aimed at breaking down those polymers into smaller sub-units that we can then put back together to be used to generate more valuable products,” Raynie said.

He and others on the SDSU campus have spent the past four or five years working on a technique to convert lignin into bio jet fuel through a process called pyrolysis. The work was financed by a contract from the Army, Raynie said, but the project was scaled back when Congress eliminated earmarks.

Still, lessons were learned in that work that will prove useful in the new project.

“I think this new EPSCoR award is an opportunity to take some of what we learned through the Army project, as well as other biomaterials work we’ve done on campus, and scale it into something that is a little more up to date,” Raynie said.

On the South Dakota campuses, chemists, chemical engineers, microbiologists and others will work on how to break off and isolate the chemically reactive molecules from lignin. Then, in North Dakota, biochemists will see whether they can turn those molecules into polymers that become the building blocks in plastics, pharmaceuticals, detergents and more.

“In effect, we would become a different supplier for industry,” Rice said. “Right now, chemical companies isolate these polymers from petroleum sources. There are renewable sources that could replace petroleum. We need to figure out how we break down chemicals that make the types of materials industry wants and convert them into chemicals those industries can use with as little modification of their existing process as we can.”

The EPSCoR grant is important for other reasons than just the work with lignin, Rice added. EPSCoR targets states such as North Dakota and South Dakota where academic research enterprises aren’t competitive with, say, Minnesota, Iowa, or other states that have invested more heavily in academic research through the years.

Awards such as the National Science Foundation’s $6 million contract help to build that infrastructure and lure scientists to the state for top-level research, he said.

“For us, this award is a big deal,” he said. “It’s a significant investment in something where we can make a contribution. It not only allows us to make a contribution to national needs. But it’s also going to build infrastructure within our state and North Dakota, which ultimately makes us more competitive for larger awards – the type of awards, say, an MIT could get.”

Of course, the awards keep coming only if the research produces. Both Rice and Raynie are convinced that will happen in this case.

“As federal grants get reviewed, they look at what’s the probability of success. What’s the probability that you will be able to do what you say you can do?” Raynie said.

“I think we have a strong degree of confidence that we’ll have something for commercialization. Whether it’s a brand new polymer that replaces polyethylene (the most common plastic), that may be too optimistic. But I do think there will be commercial products that come out of this.”