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Clarkson University’s Minko Receives NSF Grant for Biofuels Research
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A Clarkson University professor has received a grant from the National Science Foundation (NSF) to research less expensive ways to extract ethanol from plants.
Clarkson chemistry professor Sergiy Minko received a $200,978, three-year NSF grant for the study. He will be working with Andriy Voronov and Scott Pryor, faculty from North Dakota State University, who received $309,357 from the NSF for their part of the research.
Minko said the federal government is calling for 36 billion gallons of biofuels to be produced by 2022. Almost half of that, he said, "should come from cellulosic biomass."
Cellulosic, Minko explained, refers to cell walls of plants, which contain sugars that can be converted to ethanol alcohol. "Cellulose would be degraded and transformed into biofuel," he says.
The biggest part of the process is an enzyme that breaks the long chemical chains that make up the cellulose into smaller pieces. The enzyme, he said, comes from certain microorganisms and is not easy to get.
Biofuels created this way aren’t competitive price-wise, Minko said. The largest contributor to the high cost is the enzyme. "The technology is based on this enzyme and this enzyme is extracted from a special population of this microorganism. This process makes the bio-fuels from cellulose to be expensive related to traditional fuels."
Minko said the grant is for finding a way to bring the costs of the process down to a more competitive level. "The major idea of this project is to make this process less expensive just by recycling the enzyme."
Normally, he said, the enzyme is thrown out with the plant waste. The point is "to learn how we can selectively extract the enzymes from this biomass and reuse them for several cycles. So it makes the biofuel substantially cheaper and so we can approach the target in terms of the price of biofuel."
The process will use small capsules, like beads, that will release the enzymes into the biomass to make the ethanol, and later the same capsules will collect the enzymes to use the next time. Since the capsule is larger than the enzyme, it’s easier to collect from the biomass.
The research focuses on two specific problems: signaling the capsules to release the enzymes and getting the capsules to selectively extract the enzymes at the end of the process.
Enzymes are typically very active in terms of function, Minko said. "If you collect them, it’s difficult normally to release them, but in principle, it’s possible. The extraction process is difficult," he said, "because it’s easy to pick up the wrong material instead of the enzyme."
Minko has been the Egon Matijevic Chaired Professor of Chemistry at Clarkson since 2003. Before that he was a senior staff scientist and group leader at the Leibniz Institute of Polymer Research in Dresden, Germany, head of the chemistry department and professor of the Institute of Physical Chemistry at the National Academy of Sciences (NAS) in Lviv, Ukraine, and a senior research fellow and group leader at the Institute of Physical Chemistry at NAS.
He received his bachelor of science and master of science degrees in chemical engineering and his Ph.D. in chemistry at the Lviv Polytechnic National University, Ukraine. He also received his doctor of science degree in chemistry from NAS.
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