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Focused on the fuel

Alan Flurry

Franklin College faculty and graduate students across the life sciences are engaged in bringing next-generation transportation fuels to market through a variety of ongoing research efforts. From  refinement of living organisms to breaking down sugars to release the energy in biomass, extraordinary researchers are developing new methods for displacing fossil fuels from the carbon budget. Our colleagues in the Office of Research share the story:

Extracting the right organic material—and enough of it—from each feedstock is another challenge.

Plants like corn are among the most straightforward to work with because they’re made of starch, which is easily broken down into sugar and fermented into liquid fuel. Other plants and biomass aren’t quite as simple.

The key to getting the most energy out of biomass is unlocking the highest volume of carbohydrates from the plant, tree or other organic material in order to break them down into sugars and convert into bioenergy.

“Every single plant cell is surrounded by a cell wall, which is rich in carbohydrates,” said Breanna Urbanowicz, assistant professor in the Franklin College of Arts and Sciences department of biochemistry and molecular biology.

Urbanowicz specializes in understanding the biological makeup of plants. She develops better methods to alter the cell wall structure for use in bioproducts.

Urbanowicz just received funding from the DOE to apply her expertise to duckweed, an emerging bioenergy feedstock that can grow in aquatic areas and is one of the fastest growing plants.

Urbanowicz, like Mohnen, is a researcher in UGA’s Complex Carbohydrate Research Center (CCRC), one of the world’s leading destinations for the study of carbohydrate science. Mohnen focuses on pectin, a gelling agent in the cell wall that’s known for its role in holding jams and jellies together. But the same property that makes it great for grape jelly is less helpful when it comes to extracting sugars because it binds carbohydrates to the cell wall.

“We’re working to make it easier to open the cell wall and deconstruct it,” Mohnen explained. “Improving this process could increase the yield of biomass in switchgrass sixfold and produce similar results in other biomass.”

Read the entire article.

Image: Researcher Breeanna Urbanowicz develops better methods to alter cell wall structure to facilitate use in biofuels and other bioproducts. (Photo by Lauren Corcino)

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