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Biofuels researcher searches for new sources

The words are becoming familiar, even if the products aren't: biofuel, biobased, biodiesel, bioethanol.

All refer to fuel that's made from bio-produced materials such as plants. Chengci Chen (pronounced Chen-see Chen), an assistant professor of cropping systems at the Central Agricultural Research Center at Moccasin, Mont., and his collaborators are investigating Montana's potential for producing biofuels using "biomass," which refers to all biologically produced materials like grains, straw, hay, trees and fruits. He and his collaborators are working on a project to evaluate the ethanol production potential of various straws, hays, and silages in Montana.

People can make fuel from many kinds of plants, though over 90 percent of ethanol made in the United States comes from corn grain. However, other sources of ethanol are needed, because even if the entire United States' corn crop was used for ethanol, it would meet only 10 percent of the country's fuel needs.

So researchers are looking for new sources for ethanol. Since the jury is still out on what combination of sources will be best to replace petrol, Chen is working with sources that will be more universally available -- especially in Montana.

Chen is working on the issue from two directions. First, he is looking at how to maximize the volume of Montana crops or their residues with less input. At the same time, he is looking for the most efficient enzyme to break down the biomass into sugars and also looking at microorganisms that can ferment the sugars into fuel.

Daniel Kammen, director of the Renewable and Appropriate Energy Lab at the University of California at Berkeley, said in a recent email that rapid technological advances in the production of such cellulosic ethanol are contributing to its tremendous potential as an easy-to-use fuel in conventional vehicles.

How best to bring that tremendous potential to Montana is just what Chen and his collaborator
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Source:Montana State University


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