A&M scientists study plant waste as a potential biofuel

A research group headed by Texas A&M University has been awarded $2.4 million by the Department of Energy to work on converting lignin — a component of plants usually discarded as a waste product — into a biofuel.

Joshua Yuan, an assistant professor of systems biology and bioenergy at A&M, said the project will combine mathematical and engineering design with microbial engineering to determine how best to use lignin as a biofuel precursor.

That could then be used to produce biodiesel and other compounds, Yuan said.

The award was one of several announced by DOE’s Office of Energy Efficiency and Renewable Energy, just days after Congress passed legislation intended to avert increased income taxes for most Americans.

The fiscal cliff legislation also extended the biofuel production credit for a year, which  advocates say will encourage research into using non-food sources for fuel.

Most U.S.-produced biofuel is made from corn.

Yuan says lignin is the component in plant cell walls that makes plants strong enough to stand tall, as well as providing the water-resistance that allows plants to carry water from their roots to the tops of even tall trees.

It’s a waste product in a number of processes, including those used in the paper industry and many biofuel plants, he said.

“There’s a saying, you can make anything out of lignin but money,” he said. “People can make a lot of things out of lignin, but nothing is profitable.”

Finding a way to convert the waste into biofuel could change that, Yuan said.

Also involved in the project are scientists from the Georgia Institute of Technology, the University of British Columbia and Washington State University.

A&M has received several other DOE grants over the past year involving biofuels research, including one for a project Yuan is working on using tobacco as a source.