Mike Timko

Converting Bamboo Into Fuel

Could one of the fastest growing plants on Earth offer a solution to some countries’ reliance on gasoline? A team of researchers at WPI and around the globe has co-developed a process to convert bamboo into an ethanol fuel for powering cars and trucks.

The research is funded in part by the National Science Foundation (NSF), the World Bank African Centers of Excellence program through the Pan African Materials Institute (PAMI), and the Tertiary Education Trust Fund of Nigeria (TETFund). The findings show that in countries with an abundant supply of bamboo, this new biofuel process could significantly reduce fossil fuel use—a major source of air pollution impacting health, economic development, and climate change.

Through processing using ball milling, which grinds up the bamboo, and an enzyme treatment, the researchers were able to convert the bamboo into simple sugars, which can then be fermented to create ethanol. Ball milling increases sugar yields obtained from the enzyme step by an order of magnitude, compared with the yields obtained without ball milling. In addition, the ball milling does not generate any new chemical wastes, unlike other methods used to make biofuels.

“We’ve shown that ball milling has the potential as a waste-free method, while using abundant resources in developing nations to offset their liquid fuel use as part of a sustainable approach to lowering their greenhouse gas emissions,” says Chemical Engineering Professor Michael Timko.

The researchers used Nigeria as a case study for implementing the fuel made from bamboo after Nigerian researcher Nneka “Blessing” Ekwe came to WPI to develop technologies to use bamboo for biofuel production. The team found the bamboo could be effective in creating a sustainable system that also helps decarbonize that country’s economy.

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