May 8, 2008
Todays production of biofuels like ethanol are created primarily from grain products like corn, but there are sizable undeveloped resources of organic biomass that could be harnessed as a green renewable source of fuel energy. Current refining processes leverage the starch content of grains converting them into sugars distillates that can be transformed in to ethanol fuel. The power efficiency of grain conversion biofuel is not optimal.
The cell walls of plant byproduct and waste represent a giant source of untapped energy for the future. Plant material byproduct biomass contains cellulose, which is harder to refine and convert to sugars for distilling. Plantmass sugar (hemicellulose) contains a wealth of carbohydrate structures that have to be chemically consumed by microorganisms to be converted in to fuels. The future development of low cost efficient refinement to convert the cellulose biomass into fuel is slowed by lack of development of biomass energy crops. The challenge is separating the biomass fuel components, the slow activity of chemical enzymes that deconstruct biomass product, and the resistant effect of fuels and processing waste on organisms responsible for converting biomass into usable fuels.
The $125 million Joint BioEnergy Institute (JBEI) is one of three national centers created by the DOE, each funded for up to $25 million a year to address the challenges and future of biomass biofuels.