University Research Leads to Biofuel Breakthrough

By Steve Brachmann
April 22, 2014

In discussions about our ability as human beings to build a sustainable future for ourselves, our reliance on deriving energy from fossil fuels is of major concern. Not only do these forms of fuel cause considerable pollution when combusted by vehicles, the carbon-based sources of these fuels are finite and quickly depleting. Although new technologies, like hydrofracking, have enabled us to find new sources of petroleum fuels, these methods come with their own negative environmental impacts.

In our further coverage of green and sustainable technologies for Earth Day 2014, we here at IPWatchdog wanted to take a closer look at innovations that could help us address many of the concerns of using fossil fuels for years into the future. Biofuel production has increased in recent years, but for many reasons production has fallen short of public policy goals. However, as we profile below, exciting new innovations being patented and licensed by American universities may provide some effective answers to issues that have been vexing biofuel developers for years.


What are Biofuels?

“Biofuel” is a blanket term that refers to alternative types of liquid fuel created for use in vehicles. A major difference between biofuels and fossil fuels is that biofuels are created from biomass material, like corn stalks and wheat straw, instead of carbon-based material which isn’t a renewable resource.

Ethanol is one biofuel, and the one most often seen in regards to small car biofuels. Ethanol is an alcohol derived from biomass material through a process called gasification, in which high temperatures and a low-oxygen environment are used to create a gas containing hydrogen and carbon monoxide. This gaseous substance can then be converted chemically into a liquid fuel.

Biodiesel is a biofuel developed for diesel fuel applications, such as for industrial vehicles, that is created through a mixture of methanol and discarded oils or greases. Waste byproducts that can be reused for this process include recycled cooking grease, animal fat or vegetable oil. Oil-rich microalgae strains are also capable of creating biomass for biodiesel and even jet fuel more efficiently than current methods of growing terrestrial plants harvested for biomass.



Issues with Increasing Biofuel Usage

There are plenty of stumbling blocks that currently make wide scale implementation of biofuel technologies problematic. To this point, biofuel developers have not been able to convert biomass into liquid transportation fuel in such a way to compete financially with the cost of drilling for oil. This has been exacerbated in recent years by increases in shale drilling providing additional avenues for harvesting domestic oil, reducing the cost of fuel as well as the immediate need to develop alternative fuel sources.

The Energy Independence and Security Act of 2007 established a goal of 21 billion gallons of biofuel produced annually by 2022, but this standard is becoming ever more unreachable as we approach that deadline. Too much ethanol in gasoline can damage the engines of older cars, and most fuels only contain at most 10 percent ethanol. Excess biomass that cannot be processed into biofuel must typically be disposed of or incinerated, creating even more pollution.

Another area of concern regarding biofuels is the conflict created by using food sources for fuel. Ideally, biofuels wouldn’t be derived from staple foods, but first-generation alternative biofuels are almost exclusively made of wheat and corn. Even with the small percentage of ethanol that makes up American fuel, about 40 percent of our domestic corn production is currently consumed for ethanol. In Hull, England, a single ethanol producer is set to become the nation’s largest buyer of wheat, consuming about 1.1 million tons per year.

Many biofuel proponents have advocated for developing a second generation of alternative biofuels to reduce the dependency on wheat, corn and other vegetation that humans and animals consume. However, issues abound regarding lignin and other complex polymers found in these materials. Lignin is composed of a chain of monolignols, or aromatic alcohols, which gives wood its rigid structure. Lignin makes wood a good fuel because of the amount of energy generated when it is burned. However, for the purposes of creating liquefied biofuels, researchers have been unable to break down lignin into simple plant sugars for thermochemical or biochemical fuel creation.



Zip Lignin Technologies

For decades, researchers in a variety of industries have been attempting to find ways of getting around this problem with lignin. Not only biofuel creators, but also paper pulping and animal feed companies would benefit from an ability to break down this fibrous, woody substance more easily. Many research experiments have been conducted to find if lignin could somehow be modified to weaken its chemical bonds while retaining its structural properties, helping wood to grow properly.

Recent discoveries by a team of academic researchers from institutions including the University of Wisconsin-Madison and Michigan State University have led to a major breakthrough in this field. Scientist and Michigan State University associate professor Curtis Wilkerson, working at the Great Lakes Bioenergy Research Center (GLBRC) in Madison, WI, was to find a gene capable of producing weaker bonds between monomers in lignin. His work was based on previous efforts during the mid-1990s by University of Wisconsin-Madison professor John Ralph, then the Plants Leader at the GLBRC, to remove lignin from trees for more efficient paper processing. Shawn Mansfield of the University of British Columbia was responsible for experiments that inserted the genes Wilkerson discovered into poplars, a fast-growing tree found all over North America.

Poplar tree at Thomas Jefferson’s Poplar Forest.

On April 4, 2014, Wilkerson described the breakthrough in Science, explaining that poplars can be specifically designed for deconstruction. “Poplars are dense, easy to store, and the flourish on marginal lands not suitable for food crops, making them a non-competing and sustainable source of biofuel,” said Wilkerson.

According to Jennifer Gottwald, a licensing manager with the Wisconsin Alumni Research Foundation (WARF), the basic technology applied here to poplar trees could used in a variety of other plant life, even grasses. “Poplar trees are a great first example as a woody tree grown as a crop, but loblolly pine is often cited as a possible source of biomass in the south,” she said in a recent telephone interview with IPWatchdog. The status of GLRBC as a U.S. Department of Energy-funded research institution further supports the notion that this technology will be developed with an eye towards improving domestic infrastructure and political goals.

WARF is involved in marketing and licensing certain patents that cover this exciting innovation. Issued in late October 2013, U.S. Patent No. 8569465, entitled Method for Modifying Lignin Structure Using Monolignol Ferulate Conjugates, protects a method of modifying lignin so that the monomers can be more easily cleaved, or “unzipped,” when the lignin is treated with an alkaline compound. This new lignin compound would allow the lignin to be processed for paper or biofuels while consuming less water and energy.

From U.S. Patent No. 8569465, titled “Method for Modifying Lignin Structure Using Monolignol Ferulate Conjugates.”

U.S. Patent No. 8685672, titled Incorporation of Flavan-3-ols and Gallic Acid Derivatives into Lignin to Improve Biomass Utilization, protects a technology that improves the fermentation of lignin monomers as biomass. Along with biofuels and paper processing, this technology also excels at reducing feed energy costs for livestock by modifying lignin so that it is much easier for animals to digest.

Innovative research and development at American colleges and universities has been a topic of much debate in patent law. Even with the support of technology transfer offices, some have raised the question of whether patenting these inventions can help academic institutions attract enough investment to rationalize spending the money associated with running a tech transfer office. However, as our IPWatchdog coverage of technologies developed by universities and colleges throughout our country shows, universities like the University of California, Stanford and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology are at the forefront of various scientific fields, including medicine, electronic devices and computer technology. The biofuel technologies mentioned above are revolutionary, but without the work of a tech transfer office to publicize these technologies, those who need these systems may never come to know that they exist. Tech Transfer Offices play a critical role in getting technology from the university out to the private sector where it can benefit society.

WARF has been receiving an increased amount of interest in this technology from companies involved in animal feed production, which was not an originally intended purpose of this technology. It’s the hallmark of any good invention, however, that it can create efficiencies in multiple industries. A few of the patents involved with this “zip lignin” innovation are being licensed by MSU Technologies, with which WARF is working to develop commercial and industrial partners for these inventions. “Companies looking for technologies like this recognize the significance,” Gottwald said. She added that some of the next steps for this technology include applying the lignin monomers to other plants and aiding trials performed by companies interested in licensing the technology to make sure that the invention works in their hands.

If you are interested in licensing the aforementioned biofuel technology please contact Jennifer Gottwald at

The Author

Steve Brachmann

Steve Brachmann is a freelance journalist located in Buffalo, New York. He has worked professionally as a freelancer for more than a decade. He writes about technology and innovation. His work has been published by The Buffalo News, The Hamburg Sun,,, Motley Fool and Steve also provides website copy and documents for various business clients and is available for research projects and freelance work.

Warning & Disclaimer: The pages, articles and comments on do not constitute legal advice, nor do they create any attorney-client relationship. The articles published express the personal opinion and views of the author as of the time of publication and should not be attributed to the author’s employer, clients or the sponsors of Read more.

Discuss this

There are currently 2 Comments comments.

  1. step back April 23, 2014 8:58 am

    To compete “financially”?
    What about to compete thermodynamically?
    What is the energy returned versus energy invested ratio (EROEI) of biofuels?

  2. Paul F. Morgan April 24, 2014 10:15 am

    Alternative energy research is great. But what one almost never sees considered or provided is a realistic independent engineering estimate of the cost of one of these conversion plants, its infrastructure and material transportation costs in and out, and how many such plants would have to be built in order to have any appreciable effect on the huge usage requirements.
    How is any of that huge amount going to be paid for when politically in this country we cannot even manage to raise gasoline taxes even to compensate for their reduction by inflation, much less to have enough money to to fix potholes and bridges? The corn ethanol % mandate was politically possible only because it was a huge subsidy for farmers and farm corporations, and other voters were clueless as to what it was costing them.