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Ethanol Pilot Plant Ushers in New Era for UF Biofuels Research

  • By:
    Stu Hutson – (352) 273-3569
  • Sources:
    Lonnie Ingram – ingram@ufl.edu, (352) 392-8176
    Pratap Pullammanappallil – pcpratap@ufl.edu, (352) 392-1864 x203

Lonnie Ingram monitors the bioreactor in the cellulosic ethanol pilot plant in Rogers Hall
View Photo

GAINESVILLE, Fla. — Gasoline prices in the United States have fluctuated wildly in the past two years, but this isn’t the first time the nation has felt pain at the pump. Several oil crises in the ’80s prompted microbiologist Lonnie Ingram to begin working on alternative fuels to meet U.S. transportation needs.

Since that time, Ingram and colleagues at the University of Florida have been developing economical and environmentally friendly ways to produce cellulosic ethanol – a clean-burning fuel produced from materials such as yard waste and switchgrass, that could end up replacing much of the country’s gasoline.

This work at UF has resulted in the formation of two spinoff companies, Verenium Corp. to commercialize cellulosic ethanol and BioEnergy International to commercialize the production of renewable chemicals for biodegradable plastics. In both cases, imported petroleum will be replaced with green, renewable alternatives.

But UF’s role in developing this new technology has only begun. On October 10, a biofuels pilot plant on the UF campus officially opened operations to help usher this solution into the mainstream.

“This will be a tremendous tool for studying the nuts and bolts of biofuels and renewable chemicals for plastics so that they both can become a reality on a scale that will really have an impact on our energy economy,” said Ingram, a distinguished professor of microbiology and cell science with UF’s Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences and director of the Florida Center for Renewable Chemicals and Fuels.

The pilot plant will serve as an essential stage for refining biofuel conversion processes – offering the reality of an industrial setting beyond the limitations of beakers and test tubes, but without the inhibiting costs and unwieldy practicalities of a full industrial-scale plant.

For example, it will enable testing of feedstocks that might otherwise be overlooked. Researchers at the plant will also be able to make the already green cellulosic ethanol production even more environmentally sound by investigating new ways to recycle water and harness byproducts that can be converted into energy to help power the conversion process.

Nearly two years in development, the biofuels pilot plant was made possible as part of $4.5 million awarded by the Board of Governors of the State University System to UF as part of its Centers of Excellence Program. Nearly half the funds went to develop the pilot plant in Rogers Hall.

That funding, approved by the Florida Legislature, is aimed at stimulating Florida’s economy by simultaneously creating new high-tech industries and addressing the state’s growing energy needs.

With more than 150 faculty members involved in 22 energy research centers, UF brings together the research resources to make this goal possible. In the past few years alone, UF’s federal and state energy research funding exceeded $70 million.

“We are glad to have this kind of support, because it’s an essential part of developing a solid future for this country’s energy demands,” Ingram said.

The overall method for producing ethanol is somewhat similar to brewing automotive fuels and organic acids that can be used to make plastics. Feedstocks are first broken down by exposure to physical grinding, chemicals, heat and enzymes. The syrupy results are then put into tanks where they are fermented with the aid of microbial agents to produce a mixture of ethanol and other products. From this broth, ethanol can be distilled to produce an automotive fuel or organic acids can be purified to make plastics.

Typical ethanol production primarily uses the edible portions of plants – such as cane sugars and the starchy portions of corn. The cellulosic process, however, introduces genetically engineered bacteria that can break down inedible portions of plant material that do not compete with food supplies.

Ingram’s technology is already at work on an industrial scale. Verenium now holds UF rights to the ethanol technology, and has constructed a 1.4 million-gallon-per-year demonstration plant in Jennings, La. Additionally, in 2007, Verenium presented its first royalty check to UF from the proceeds of a 1.3 million-liter-per-year cellulosic ethanol plant in Osaka, Japan.

A second, Massachusetts-based company holds the rights from UF to produce renewable chemicals for use in biodegradable plastics. In 2007, BioEnergy International presented UF with its first royalty check for renewable chemicals which are being produced commercially in Salamanca, Spain. With $20 million recently awarded by the Florida Legislature, UF has also partnered with Florida Crystals Corp. to plan and construct a demonstration plant in South Florida which will focus on the unique feedstocks available in Florida.

The campus pilot plant currently houses two boilers. One runs to three small-scale fermenting tanks, each just slightly taller than an average person. Another runs to a bioreactor, a series of tanks with a total footprint of a large pickup truck, used to experiment with methods for breaking down feedstocks before fermentation.

Along with industrial centrifuges, mixing tanks, distillation equipment and various other tools used in the cellulosic ethanol production process, the plant also houses equipment such as gas and liquid chromatography machines used to analyze chemicals and products on a molecular scale.

“This technology is moving forward on a large scale, but there are many things that are too costly to experiment with at that level,” said Pratap Pullammanappallil, an assistant professor of agricultural and biological engineering and director of the plant. “We have to keep pushing hard to move the state of the art further along, and that’s exactly what this pilot plant at UF will allow us to do.”

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