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Fall 2006 - Ethanol

Destination Purdue > Fall 2006 - Ethanol

Fueling the fire for ethanol research

By Steve Kohlsdorf

Purdue Agriculture researchers are working to make corn a more competitive source of alternative fuel.

Carrie Barnum

Photo by Steve Kohlsdorf

Carrie Barnum, a junior biological engineering major from Ogden Dunes, Ind., takes a sample of extracted DNA from corn residue. Barnum works for a researcher who is developing ways to make ethanol fuel from corn residue more profitable.

Wilfred Vermerris, an assistant professor of agronomy and agriculture and biological engineering, is working on a mutant gene that could make corn plants a better source of ethanol, an alternative to petroleum. The unique thing about his research is that it uses corn stover - the stalks left over after harvest - not the actual grain. Vermerris' work focuses on a particular corn plant gene. When that gene is mutated, the plant can produce 40 to 50 percent more sugar, a key ingredient for ethanol production, Vermerris said.

He is currently adding the mutated genes to other corn plants to increase the sugar content to the highest possible limits. Some studies have shown up to a 95 percent increase in stover sugar content is possible. But while the stover may be more useful for ethanol applications, it has some drawbacks.

"Although the mutated genes increase the sugar content of the plant, it will drop the grain yield slightly," Vermerris said. "We are working to get the same yield out of the mutated plant." Maintaining grain yield is important for producers concerned with the bottom line. But farmers could earn extra income from selling the stover to ethanol producers. Normally, stover is left in the field and plowed back into the soil.

"I would do whatever nets the most profit," said Dan Gephart, a West Lafayette, Ind. farmer. "We're not doing this for our health." "It is my mission to come up with value-added traits in croplands to get extra money off of crops to benefit farmers." Vermerris said,

Purdue faculty aren't the only ones involved in this research. Carrie Barnum, a junior biological engineering major from Ogden Dunes, Ind, is one of Vermerris' lab assistants. Her work is part of a class, but goes beyond textbooks and exams. Barnum's job in the lab is to hydrolyze different stover samples with enzymes and to determine glucose yields. Then she compares the different samples.

"This is the most fun class that I have and it's a good learning experience," Barnum said. She said she learned about undergraduate research opportunities and sent e-mails to different professors who were looking for research assistants. "Vermerris responded to an e-mail that I sent him and offered me a position as an assistant in his lab," Barnum said.

Barnum finds the work that she does in the lab personally rewarding as well as enjoying. She likes the relaxed environment in the laboratory as well as the helpful nature of her labmates. Now she is considering graduate school, depending on employment opportunities after completing her undergraduate studies.

Vermerris hopes his research on ethanol production will have many benefits, including for the environment. Unlike gasoline, biofuels don't release new carbons into the air. The carbon in the corn plants was absorbed from the air, unlike the carbon in gasoline, which is released when the crude oil is pumped up from underground.

For now, the focus is on making the corn stover more efficient for ethanol production, encouraging ethanol producers to modify their facilities to use this biomass for production instead of using strictly grain.

Currently, there are no ethanol plants capable of producing ethanol from biomass. Vermerris said it might take up to 10 years to make using biomass to make ethanol as economical as it is now to use grain.