Sweden-based researcher finds new method to make bioethanol from waste

Ramkumar Nair, a Sweden-based doctoral student at the University of Borås, has carried out a research project to show it is possible to produce bioethanol from agricultural and industrial waste in existing plants in a socioeconomically sustainable way.

“I have been verifying a process that we hope will work in an industrial scale, when it comes to using existing ethanol factories,” Nair said. “Thanks to that process, the industry can become more sustainable and use agricultural or industrial waste for the production of bioethanol.”

Bioethanol is used for fuel for ethanol cars, among other things. Feedstocks such as wheat, sugarcane or corn are typically used for ethanol production. In Sweden, wheat is the most common feedstock.

“But these are crops that could be used as human nutrition,” Nair said. “It is more sustainable if we could use waste to create fuel, and this is something we have been working on in several project here at University of Borås.

According to the University of Borås, Nair has now verified a process that integrates the first and second-generation ethanol processes.

Nair said: “This means that agricultural residues, such as straw, bran, or the like could be used for making ethanol without making any major investments in the factories. All we need is already there. You can use the factories existing reactors. This also eliminates the burden of using foodstuff to produce vehicle fuel.”

Ethanol factories

In his research, Nair has analysed the structure of the first-generation ethanol processes and found out where the focus should be. The biggest challenge was not to add chemicals to break down the waste material for the ethanol process, as the residues from the ethanol factories among other things will be used for animal feed.

“What we added should not stop the fermentation,” Nair said. “After several tests, the choice was to add phosphoric acid. It is good for the animals that eat the leftovers and it gives good results in the ethanol fermentation process.”

The entire method was first tested in a small scale in the lab at the University of Borås, later in a larger facility at Borås Energi och Miljö, and finally on an even larger scale at SEKAB in Örnsköldsvik.

Fungus used for integration

In order to succeed with the integration, an edible filamentous fungus was used, Neurospora intermedia, which is a fungus used for human consumption, for example in Indonesia. The fungus has a good ability to produce ethanol and is also a good ingredient in animal feed due to its high protein content. This fungus is easy to grow in a lab environment.

Nair said: “One difficulty when using the fungus is that it has a tendency to clump, which creates challenges in the industrial process. But I have managed this fungus to form small balls or pellets instead of lumps. There are other fungi that form pellets, but I am the first one to have made the Neurospora intermedia to do it. Pellets do not get stuck; they roll off, and are better for the fermentation process in some instances.”

It was complicated to find out how to do it, but once it was done the method for making the fungus form pellets instead of lumps is quite simple.

Now the project will hopefully continue at the industry, to develop and fine-tune the process at a larger scale. The entire concept of integration and the results are now included in a patent owned by Lantmännen Agroetanol, which is one of the partners of air’s research project.

“Now there is a research-based verification for the process, so the industry can carry on and continue to develop it,” concluded Nair. “I hope that in a few years, I will see a large-scaled first-generation ethanol factory that produces bioethanol from agricultural waste, using this integration model.”