Brent Shanks, an
The idea is to create the chemical catalysts that create single, simple sugars from molecules made of several simple sugars linked together. The simple sugars are the ones that can be fermented to produce ethanol.
Such a process would allow ethanol producers to use all the sugars in corn. And Shanks said that could boost ethanol production by 10 to 15 percent.
The research is supported by grants of $305,000 from the National Science Foundation, $200,000 from the US Department of Agriculture through the Iowa Biotechnology Byproducts Consortium and $162,000 from the US Department of Energy through the Midwest Consortium for Biobased Products and Bioenergy.
Shanks, who worked for the Shell Chemical Company for 11 years, said the petrochemical industry has been developing catalysts and other technologies for working with fossil fuel molecules for about 80 years. Researchers working with corn and other bio-based molecules are just starting to develop catalysts and technologies to improve production of fuels and chemicals.
Shanks’ ethanol project is focused on synthesizing and testing catalysts made from a hybrid of organic and inorganic materials. The researchers are working at the nanostructure scale, meaning they’re working at the molecular level.
Current ethanol production technology uses enzymes to convert the starch in corn kernels into simple sugars. The simple sugars are fermented into ethanol. Shanks said that process uses about 80 percent of a corn kernel.
The remaining 20 percent of a kernel contains sugar chains that can’t be fermented. Shanks and his research team are working to develop a chemical catalyst that will break those sugar chains into the simple sugars that can be fermented into ethanol.
Pulling out those sugars would also boost the protein level of the distillers dried grains left behind by ethanol production. That would make the by-product more valuable as an animal feed.
Initial tests in the lab have produced promising results, Shanks said.
But he said there’s still some research and development work to do before the technology is precise enough to be used in an ethanol plant.
“This research is in an area that makes a lot of sense for