New Technology Uses Cellulosic Biomass to Produce Ethanol

Ethanol production from soft-biomass — including inedible leaves and plant stalks such as rice straw — has entered into the mass production phase of research at the Research Institute of Innovative Technology for the Earth (RITE) and Honda R&D Co., a subsidiary of Honda Motor responsible for research and development.

The move toward commercial production comes after a joint research venture between the two companies established a new process to produce ethanol from cellulose and hemicellulose, both found in soft-biomass, potentially increasing fuel production significantly. Until recently, soft-biomass such as rice straw represented a challenge to convert to ethanol. The new technology uses RITE strain, a microorganism developed by RITE that converts sugar into alcohol, with Honda engineering to increase alcohol conversion efficiency, in comparison to current cellulosic bio-ethanol production processes. Current technology allows fermentation inhibitors, collaterally formed during the process of separating cellulose and hemicellulose from soft-biomass, to interfere with the function of microorganisms that convert sugar into alcohol, leading to low ethanol yield. Known as the RITE-Honda process, the technology reduces the harmful influence of fermentation inhibitors. The RITE-Honda process consists of the following operations: — Pretreatment to separate cellulose from soft-biomass — Saccharification of cellulose and hemicellulose — Conversion of sugar into ethanol using microorganisms — Ethanol refinement The new process is a step forward for the practical application of soft-biomass as a fuel source since existing bio-ethanol production, produced primarily from the sugar and starch of sugarcane and corn feedstock, faces supply limits and is also used as a food source. RITE and Honda are now pursuing research for mass production, including development of systems to integrate four operations, currently operated independently, into a continuous flow within one plant. A demonstration project is planned within a pilot plant to assess the social compatibility and economic efficiency of the new bio-alcohol production system.
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