by Jen Matteis
Science Pub Corvallis started up three years ago in March, and judging by the crowd that meets on the second Monday of the month at Old World Deli, it’s still going strong. About 100 people showed up for the March 12 lecture “Sweetspot for Biofuels,” which started with trivia – complete with prizes – and ended with Biofuels Jeopardy.
The group is a good mix of young and old, and it doesn’t flinch when the lecturer calls out, “What’s the molecular formula for ethanol?” Someone shouts back the rights answer immediately–a good indicator of the science-savvy nature of this town.
The speakers were Chris Beatty, the president of Trillium FiberFuels, and Vincent Remcho, a professor of chemistry at OSU. Both the advantages (environmental sustainability, plus it costs about 25 cents less per gallon) and the disadvantages (slightly reduced gas mileage, wide-spread use of fertilizers) of biofuels were explored.
Beatty and Remcho mostly discussed cellulosic ethanol, which is made out of agricultural waste materials, rather than corn ethanol which is corn specifically grown to become fuel. Ideally, they’d like to see wheat and rye grass become contenders in the arena of biofuel technology. The plan is to make use of the grasses’ sugars and protein in food products, and then ferment the remainder into ethanol fuel that could power vehicles.
“It’s not meant to displace corn ethanol; there’s not one thing moving forward that’s going to do it all. We’re working on one of the pieces of the puzzle that we think is going to be a positive addition,” said Beatty.
The two are working on finding enzymes that can break down plant cellulose into fermentable sugars. As it turns out, the white rot fungus that you see on decomposing wood produces an enzyme that is a good candidate.
“You’re the first people to know,” Beatty told the audience at Science Pub. “We’re looking to make that enzyme more available to the biofuel community.”
Another interesting fact that came out of the lecture is the existence of the “blending wall.” Fuel is allowed to contain a maximum of only 10 percent ethanol, due to various standards at gas pumps and manufacturer’s warranties on machinery. Even if cellulosic ethanol does become easier to produce, without policy changes we won’t be seeing a change in what comes out of the pump anytime soon.
“I’m afraid in an election year we’re not going to see a lot of progress,” Beatty conceded.