OSU research on biofuel grows

STILLWATER – The Biobased Products and Energy Center at Oklahoma State University is pursuing the establishment of biorefineries in Oklahoma, with the hopes of reducing U.S. dependence on foreign oil.

A recent $110,000 USDA-NIFA grant through the South Central Region Sun Grant Program was awarded to Mark Wilkins, associate professor in OSU’s Department of Biosystems and Agricultural Engineering, to aid in BioPEC’s mission. Joined by Michael Buser and Stephen Marek, from OSU, and Julie Carrier, University of Arkansas, the team will look to construct a system that applies oyster mushrooms to grass bales in order to reduce a component of the grass called lignin.

Lignin makes grass difficult to use for production of sugars, so reducing lignin helps increase the yield of sugars that can be made.

“Previous researchers have used oyster mushrooms and other similar organisms known as white-rot fungi to reduce lignin content in grasses, but not in a bale system such as ours,” Wilkins said. “Our team thought that since mushrooms take several weeks to accomplish a reduction in lignin, it would make sense to apply the mushrooms to bales that must be stored for several weeks prior to use.”

During the storage of bales, the mushrooms eat lignin before enzymes are added to the grass to produce sugars that can be fermented by microorganisms to produce alcohol fuels or other valuable chemicals.

“This project is developing a method that will enhance sugar yields from grass feedstocks commonly grown in Oklahoma,” he said. “The grasses treated by our method would be useful for biorefineries using sugars to produce biofuels and bioproducts.”

The proposed system would combine feedstock storage with a method to make grasses ready to be used for sugar production immediately. “We hope to remove the necessity of expensive pretreatment systems that are currently needed to prepare grasses for sugar production,” Wilkins said. “Our system would greatly reduce the energy required for sugar production compared to existing pretreatment processes.”