2009 Awards

Fungal Biopulping for Improved Ethanol Production from Low-cost Woody Feedstocks - UNC Charlotte

Funding recipient:  University of North Carolina at Charlotte, Charlotte, NC

Award amount:  $150,295

Lignocellulosic (woody) biomass such as wood waste, leftover crop stalks, grasses, and municipal cardboard waste are broadly generated in North Carolina, and potentially represent more economical, sustainable sources of biomass for ethanol production than do traditional feedstocks.  However, the abundant sugars contained in lignocellulosic biomass are blocked from traditional ethanol-producing fermentation reactions because they occur in a complex of lignin and celluloses that is difficult to break down.  Current methods using chemical and enzymatic breakdown are relatively expensive and energy-intensive, which inhibits commercialization.  Development of more sustainable, cost-effective processing technologies that address these limitations is needed to advance lignocellulosic ethanol production.

In this project, researchers at the University of North Carolina at Charlotte are examining specific wood-rot fungi for their ability to rapidly break down lignin and cellulose in common North Carolina plant waste materials, with the goal of developing more cost-effective and sustainable biomass sources and processing technologies for ethanol production.  Such fungi have already been used in the paper industry to efficiently break down wood in a process called biopulping.  In particular, UNC Charlotte researchers are testing multiple fungal species on a variety of lignocellulosic biomass types (wood waste, corn stover, switchgrass, etc.) in comparative experiments to examine biopulping efficiency, sugar production, and ethanol yield.  Best practices characterized in laboratory experiments will be examined for pilot scalability at the Catawba County EcoComplex (a rural resource recovery facility).  The overall goal is to experimentally investigate, develop, and demonstrate an innovative application of fungal biopulping technology to improve efficiency, sustainability, and marketability of lignocellulosic ethanol biofuel production in North Carolina.

Studies suggest that lignocellulosic biomass may be the only available plant material capable of supporting truly sustainable large-scale ethanol production.  This project utilizes fundamental research to characterize, develop, and apply sustainable technology to produce lignocellulosic ethanol from non-food plant biomass that is produced statewide.  Combined laboratory and pilot-scale research is intended to ultimately lead to market interests in fungal biopulping for lignocellulosic ethanol production and demonstrate a sustainable, rural-capable model that could be incorporated into existing ethanol plants and new production facilities around the state.  Transformation of readily available non-food plant waste material into a marketable, sustainable energy commodity will have positive economic implications on local, state, and national levels.

North Carolina counties benefiting from this project: Mecklenburg and Catawba

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