White rot fungus boosts ethanol production from corn stalks, cobs and leaves
The latest episode in the American Chemical Society’s (ACS’) award-winning Global Challenges/Chemistry Solutions podcast series reports new evidence that the so-called white rot fungus shows promise in the search for a way to use waste corn stalks, cobs and leaves — rather than corn itself — to produce ethanol to extend supplies of gasoline.
Based on a report by Yebo Li, Ph.D., in ACS’ journal Industrial & Engineering Chemistry Research, the new podcast is available without charge at iTunes and from www.acs.org/globalchallenges.
In the new episode, Li explains that corn-based ethanol supplies are facing a crunch because corn is critical for animal feed and food. They note that the need for new sources of ethanol has shifted attention to using stover (the leaves, stalks and cobs), which is the most abundant agricultural residue in the U.S., estimated at 170-256 million tons per year.
The challenge was to find a way to break down the tough material in cobs, stalks and leaves — so that sugars inside can be fermented to ethanol. Previous studies indicated that a microbe known as a white rot fungus showed promise for breaking down that tough plant material prior to treatment with enzymes to release the sugars. To advance that knowledge, the researchers evaluated how well the fungus broke down the different parts of corn stover and improved the sugar yield.
Treating stover with the white rot fungus for one month enabled them to extract up to 30 percent more sugar from the leaves and 50 percent more from the stalks and cobs. Because corn leaves are useful for controlling soil erosion when left in the field, harvesting only the cobs and stalks for ethanol production may make the most sense in terms of sustainable agriculture, the report suggests.
Global Challenges/Chemistry Solutions is a series of podcasts describing some of the 21st century’s most daunting problems, and how cutting-edge research in chemistry matters in the quest for solutions. Global Challenges is the centerpiece in an alliance on sustainability between ACS and the Royal Society of Chemistry. Global Challenges is a sweeping panorama of global challenges that includes dilemmas such as providing a hungry, thirsty world with ample supplies of safe food and clean water; developing alternatives to petroleum to fuel society; preserving the environment and assuring a sustainable future for our children and improving human health.