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Fast-growing fungus is key to ethanol research

By Eric Gorton, JMU Media Relations

student researchers
Jamie Artale (left) and Sujay Desai strain potato juice into a beaker. The potato juice is used to grow fungus that will break down plant matter.

A group of students cuts potatoes, boils them, mashes them and then squeezes the juice into a beaker.

The process taking place in the environmental laboratory in James Madison University's department of integrated science and technology hardly looks scientific. If, however, it yields an efficient method for growing lots of fungus, these guys could be onto something.

The fungus is needed to produce enzymes that break down plant matter into simple sugars. And, once you have simple sugars, you can feed that to yeast to get ethanol, a clean-burning alternative fuel to gasoline. Thus, the more enzymes that can be produced, the greater the capacity is for producing ethanol.

And there's no shortage of plant matter for the enzymes to break down. Just about anything will do, including grass clippings, paper, wood shavings, sawdust, corn stalks — even the algae that's growing in jars in another part of the ISAT lab.

For now, it's a rather lengthy, step-filled, process to get from a potato to ethanol, but with worldwide petroleum supplies beginning to dwindle and the need for cleaner-burning fuels, it's certainly a good time to learn the process and start figuring out ways to refine it.

"You have to give it a try, man, because if we don't, we're toast," said ISAT Assistant Professor Chris Bachmann. "So I say we give it a gung-ho effort, we get these kids to know everything we can about it and let them come up with some new and interesting ideas and make these things happen."

Chris Bachmann
Assistant Professor Chris Bachmann

The benefits of cellulose digestion — the scientific name for the process of breaking down plant matter into sugars — looks promising. Traditional ethanol produced from corn will yield about 300 gallons per acre, Bachmann said. If the rest of the plant is converted to sugars using cellulose digestion, the yield could be increased by as much as five times per acre. "That's a lot better off and it's not changing what the farmers do," Bachmann said. "It's only changing the end processing strategy."

And perhaps the ideas for making that end processing strategy work well will come from Bachmann's lab.

"All of these students who work with the fuel have a better understanding of it," he said. "As these technologies get promoted and start to become more traditional, we have students who are educated in this area who can make these things happen. And maybe I'm not the one who's going to figure it out. Maybe it's one of these guys. Maybe if JMU educates hundreds of these kids, it's going to be one of them who comes up with the right answer."

One thing is certain, Bachmann said. The answer will not come easy.

"We're definitely going into areas where we don't know what the answer is, and it's not something you can just go online and there it is for you," he said. "You actually have to bang your head against the wall and the real answer won't be known until you try it."

Published December 2006 by JMU Media Relations