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July 3, 2008

Fungi to the rescue

<i>Originally published in the June 27, 2008, print edition.</i>

In view of the ongoing media denunciations of the ethanol industry as being disruptive to the food chain, disruptive to the earth’s water resources and disruptive to the energy balance, a research project conducted at Iowa State University in Ames and the University of Hawaii at Manoa could be the breakthrough to put ethanol back into the spotlight as a major energy winner.

ISU team leader Hans van Leeuwen, professor of civil, construction and environmental engineering, said a process they’re developing could reduce the energy costs of ethanol production by as much as one-third.

The project focuses on utilizing fungi to clean up and improve the dry-grind ethanol production process, a system used by over 90 percent of the ethanol production facilities. Currently, only about half of the thin stillage (liquid byproduct) created in the fermentation process can be recycled. When the research team experimented with adding rhizopus microsporus, a fungus, into the mix, the thin stillage was able to be recycled back into the production process.

Van Leeuwen said eliminating the need to evaporate excess thin stillage would save ethanol plants up to $800 million a year in energy costs and reduce the ethanol industry’s water consumption by as much as 10 billion gallons annually.

The research team has filed for a patent on the technology and is currently looking for investors to commercialize the invention.

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