Rochester, New York – David Wu, a professor at the University of Rochester in New York, has received a US$1.75 million grant from the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) to investigate a way to turn waste biomass, such as grass clippings, cornstalks and wood chips into useable hydrogen or ethanol.

Wu said that generating hydrogen gas is very similar to generating ethanol, and he is employing genomic approaches to study and enhance the abilities of a microorganism that has the capability to produce both fuels from farm and forest residues.

“Our goal is to understand how the bacterium controls the production of these two energy sources so we can engineer genetic modifications to enhance and control what it produces,” Wu said. “It’s an exciting possibility that we may be able to convert biomass we would have otherwise discarded, directly into useable liquid or gas fuel at will.”

Energy experts expect ethanol from biomass to replace at least 30 per cent of the national gasoline consumption for transportation by 2030, while hydrogen is a promising future energy source. Deriving them from cellulosic biomass makes them renewable, eliminates competition with food supplies, and reduces carbon dioxide. The bacterium Wu studies, C. thermocellum, has the rare ability to break down tough plant cellulose and convert it to hydrogen and ethanol, and prefers to grow at high temperature.

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