New biobutanol production technology increases yield while lowering cost

8/9/2021 Ohio State University College of Engineering

UIUC, OSU and SIUE awarded $1.6M from DOE's ARPA-E for transformational energy technology. Bioengineering professor Ting Lu is a co-PI on this project. 

Written by Ohio State University College of Engineering

URBANA, Ill., August 9, 2021 -The U.S. Department of Energy’s Advanced Research Projects Agency-Energy (ARPA-E) awarded $1.6 million to researchers from The Grainger College of Engineering at the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign, Ohio State University College of Engineering, and Southern Illinois University Edwardsville. The funding will be used to develop engineered microbial consortia for advanced and efficient biofuel production from renewable biomass with higher product yields and zero CO2 emissions.

“Next-generation biofuels need to be not only economical and renewable but also environmentally sustainable,” said bioengineering professor Ting Lu, the project’s co-principal investigator. “This grant offers a unique and timely opportunity for us to develop technologies that produce such fuels.”

“This award comes at a critical time in the research and development of our technology,” said Ohio State University professor Shang-Tian Yang,  the principal investigator of the grant and Lu's collaborator. “It will enable us to take our potentially game-changing biobutanol production method to the next level. We are thrilled to work with ARPA-E and be a part of their innovative research portfolio.” Professor Jie Dong from Southern Illinois University Edwardsville is another member of the research team. 

Biobutanol, along with a growing number of other plant-based products, are made almost exclusively via fermentation. Current methods for biobutanol production can waste more than a third of the carbon in the feedstock as carbon dioxide in the fermentation step alone. This waste adds greenhouse gas emissions, limits product yields, and squanders valuable carbon feedstock. Preventing the loss of carbon as CO2 during bioconversion, or potentially incorporating external CO2 into bioconversions, could lower emissions and increase the yield of bioconversion processes.

Butanol is generally used as an industrial solvent, but can also be blended with gasoline. Biobutanol is produced from fermentation of the same feedstocks as ethanol – corn, sugar beets, and other types of biomass. Currently, the predominant method to produce biobutanol is ABE fermentation, the anaerobic conversion of carbohydrates by strains of Clostridium bacteria into acetone, butanol and ethanol.

The project team will develop a novel fermentation process by combining three bacterial species and an electrochemically-reduced formate to maximize carbon conversion and butanol production with zero or negative CO2 emissions. With a 50% higher product yield from glucose compared with ABE fermentation of corn, biobutanol can be produced at prices that compete with gasoline and bioethanol.

This project is one out of 15 teams to receive an award from ARPA-E’s Energy and Carbon Optimized Synthesis for the Bioeconomy (ECOSynBio) program, which focuses on optimizing biofuel manufacturing while reducing carbon waste. 

“Biofuel is a powerful tool in the clean energy toolkit that has immense potential to power our ships and airlines with zero carbon emissions,” said Secretary of Energy Jennifer M. Granholm. “DOE is investing in research to reduce emissions and maximize the availability of efficient biofuel as we strive to reach President Biden’s net-zero carbon goals.”

About The Grainger College of Engineering

The Grainger College of Engineering at the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign is one of the world's top-ranked engineering institutions, and a globally recognized leader in engineering education, research, and public engagement. With a diverse, tight-knit community of faculty, students, and alumni, Grainger Engineering sets the standard for excellence in engineering, driving innovation in the economy and bringing revolutionary ideas to the world. Through powerful research and discovery, our faculty, staff, students and alumni are changing our world and making advances once only dreamed about, including the MRI, LED, ILIAC, Mosaic, YouTube, flexible electronics, electric machinery, miniature batteries, imaging the black hole, and flight on Mars. The world's brightest minds from The Grainger College of Engineering tackle today's toughest challenges. And they are building a better, cooler, safer tomorrow. Visit for more information.

Media Contacts:
The Grainger College of Engineering, University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign
Huan Song (Department of Bioengineering)

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This story was published August 9, 2021.