Walnut Creek, California – New salt-tolerant microbes could open the door to biofuels made from non-food sources such as municipal waste and switchgrass both efficiently and cost-effectively, according to researchers.

Scientists from the U.S. Department of Energy’s Joint Genome Institute and the Joint BioEnergy Institute have identified a new class of solvents, referred to as “iconic liquids,” that have been reported to be much more efficient in treating the biomass and enhancing the yields of sugars liberated from it, which are then used in the production of ethanol. While iconic liquids are useful for breaking down biomass, they can also hinder the ability of the cellulases used to produce sugars after pretreatment. The researchers are using salt-tolerant organisms to help identify new enzymes that are tolerant of iconic liquids.

The enzymes could realize the full potential of advanced biofuels derived from agricultural, forestry and municipal waste, and from such non-food crops as poplar, switchgrass and miscanthus.

As a test of the application, the researchers used a cellulose-degrading enzyme from a salt-tolerant microbe isolated from the Great Salt Lake. The scientists plan to expand their research to develop a full complement of enzymes tailored for the ionic liquid process technology, with the goal of demonstrating a complete biomass-to-sugar process that could enable the commercial viability of advanced biofuels.

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