Converting Agricultural Waste Products into Biofuels

l-r, Richard Sparling, Microbiology and David Levin, Biosystems Engineering

Revised 5 July 2010

Funding Announcement - Oct 2009  Cups Provide Fuel - Jul 2010
The Bulletin - Oct 2009   CBC National News - Jul 2010
Winnipeg Free Press - Sep 2010 University News Audio - Oct 2010
Radio-Canada Interview - Oct 2010

University of Manitoba researchers Richard Sparling, Microbiology, and David Levin, Biosystems Engineering, are co-leaders in a $10.4 million international collaboration looking for new ways to convert waste materials (like wood chips and straw) into fuels (biofuels) and other products.

The four-year project is made possible through partnership with Genome Canada, Genome Prairie, the Province of Manitoba's Ministry of Science, Technology Energy and Mines (STEM), and numerous other research partners. Genome Canada is contributing $4.84 million in funding to the project.

Genome Prairie was instrumental in pursuing and securing co-funding from the Province of Manitoba and other partners of $5.6 million, as well as support to hire a project manager and other human resources.  The required infrastructure already in place at the University of Manitoba laid the ground work for the successful receipt of these grant funds. 

With increasing concerns over world dependence on depleting oil resources, scientists are looking for ways to develop new, economical and renewable energy sources.  One such alternative has been the production of ethanol from cellulosic feed stocks.   Currently, the production of ethanol involves microbial fermentation of sugars (from sugar cane, produced in Brazil) or starch (from corn or wheat from the United States and Canada), and the distillation of these fermentation broths into ethanol.  Unfortunately, the use of food sources for fuel has driven up food prices, and has raised questions about the use of fossil fuels and the costs associated with the production of these energy sources. 

To address these problems, scientists are looking for abundant, low-cost alternatives (waste products) for the production of commercially viable biofuels.

In recent years, the City of Winnipeg has come into conflict with members of the surrounding agricultural community regarding the burning of straw, and the problems that the resulting smoke has on the City and its residents - particularly those with respiratory sensitivities.  Sparling and Levin are looking at ways to use this straw and other agricultural waste products (hemp hurds, flax shives, woodchips), and turn them into fuel sources. 

The focus of the research at the University of Manitoba is on the bacteria that converts ligno-cellulosics (a component of straw and woodchips) to ethanol, hydrogen and plastics (bioplastics).  Scientists are looking to understand the genes (and their function) and the metabolic processes of the bacteria.

"We will carry out a full genomic characterization of known and new bacteria that are selected for their ability to contribute to a variety of metabolic processes" explains Sparling.  From their understanding of bacteria, researchers will produce metabolically engineered bacteria and create communities of microorganisms that will generate ethanol, hydrogen and other products in a way that is commercially viable.

Achieving this goal involves the collaboration of researchers in Science, Engineering, Agriculture and Medicine at the University of Manitoba, as well as researchers from the University of Waterloo and Ryerson University.  "The goal is to establish Canada as a leader in the production of biofuels and bioplastics" says Levin.

In their quest to find new and better organisms for fuel production, scientists are looking in some unusual and exotic places.  "Have you ever seen the straw bales smoldering in the spring?  Have you ever noticed how a pile of woodchips can start heating?  There are organisms living in there, eating the stuff, producing products of interest, and we want to know more about them," explains Sparling. 

But the search for new bacteria doesn't end in the straw bales and wood chips of Manitoba.  In collaboration with researchers in New Zealand, Scion/GNS scientists will study organisms living in the geothermal hot springs of Taupo and Rotorua.  Bacteria that are able to function and thrive at higher temperatures are not well understood or well studied, and may hold great potential for the project.  Since distillation of ethanol involves heat, the use of organisms that can tolerate higher temperatures is one way to work efficiently with the process.

The four-year project was made possible through funding by Genome Canada in partnership with the Ministry of Science, Technology, Energy and Mines of Manitoba.  "We were successful in our project, because much of the required infrastructure is already in place at the University of Manitoba," says Levin. 

The project results will be scrutinized by a team of non-science academics who will consider the implications of the project, the availability of the waste stream, the sustainability of the project and the cost-benefit analysis.  They will also review the social aspects of the project, the project's viability to agricultural communities and the possibility of returning marginal agricultural lands to profitable use.

Resources will be available for graduate student training and for post-doctoral students to participate in the study; opportunities also exist for undergraduate students to be employed with the project during summer months.