Scientists seek chemical-free ways to convert waste into biofuel

Tomorrow’s airplanes and automobiles may be fueled by today’s waste. An abundance of waste material known as cellulosic biomass could supply 27 percent of the world’s transportation fuels in the years ahead, according to the International Energy Agency.

Cellulosic biomass, which is organic material not suitable for use as food, includes forest underbrush, perennial grasses, sawdust, paper pulp, and industrial and municipal waste. Washington State University scientists are working to overcome the barriers to transforming this renewable biomass into biofuel for transportation.

Conversion processes must be efficient, ecofriendly, and affordable. That’s why

Shulin Chen, director of the University’s Bioprocessing & Bioproducts Engineering

Laboratory, explores using natural biological systems to deconstruct lignocellulosic biomass (biomass found in plant cell walls). With nearly $2 million in funding from the National Science Foundation, he probes ways to break down plant cell walls without harsh chemicals by harnessing nature’s own arsenal: termites and white rot fungi. Using biomimicry—systems modeled on biological processes—he hopes to create a new generation of biorefineries that would dramatically improve the sustainability of cellulosic biomass conversion and the efficiency of biofuel production.