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DOE Awards $1.75M for Hydrogen and Ethanol from Cellulosic Biomass Project

The US Department of Energy (DOE) has awarded University of Rochester Professor David Wu a $1.75 million grant to investigate a way to turn waste biomass, such as grass clippings, cornstalks, and wood chips, into usable hydrogen or ethanol.

Wu has been studying Clostridium thermocellum—an anaerobic, thermophilic, cellulolytic, and ethanologenic bacterium. (Earlier post.) Coupled with its preference to grow at high temperature, the microorganism promises distinct advantages as a candidate for developing industrial hydrogen and ethanol production processes from cellulosic biomass.

C. thermocellum has the ability to turn biomass into ethanol in one step, but is not used at the industrial scale yet because the process of breaking down the plant’s cellulose is much too inefficient.

In 2007, Wu identified how genes responsible for biomass breakdown are turned on in the microorganism.

Wu will lead the new project, which comprises researchers at the National Renewable Energy Laboratory (NREL) and Pacific Northwest National Laboratory (PNNL). Along with Wu, the DOE Joint Genome Institute enabled the determination of the DNA sequence of the genome of this bacterium, which contains more than 3,000 genes.

Wu believes that expression of the genes responsible for cellulose breakdown, ethanol fermentation, and hydrogen production is carefully coordinated within the cell. He plans to investigate the interactions among these thousands of genes and to formulate new strategies to efficiently produce hydrogen and ethanol.

Our goal is to understand how the bacterium controls the production of these two energy sources so we can engineer genetic modifications to enhance and control what it produces. It’s an exciting possibility that we may be able to convert biomass we would have otherwise discarded, directly into usable liquid or gas fuel at will.

—David Wu

The University of Rochester will receive $1,065,000 of the grant, and the NREL and PNNL will together receive $685,000. The new DOE grant comes in addition to a $430,000 DOE grant Wu received last year to study the cellulose-to-ethanol conversion properties of the same organism.


Alex Kovnat

My comment about the header " ..... hydrogen and ethanol from cellulosic biomass .... ":

Ethanol yes, hydrogen no.

Hydrogen must be compressed to 5000, or even 10,000 pounds per square inch to get decent range in a motor vehicle. So you use up a certain percentage of the energy in the hydrogen just compressing it to said pressures. Compressed natural gas (which is mostly methane, which can also come from biomass sources) only has to be compressed to 3600 psi or thereabouts.

I have read, and I'm sure most of us who participate in Green Car Congress.com have read, claims that ethanol is mainly the child of those who have a perverse financial interest. I don't believe that's the whole story. Ethanol has some very good characteristics as a motor fuel. It has a wonderfully high antiknock (octane) rating, is less obnoxious than methanol regarding corrosivity, and finally, mother nature isn't as offended by ethanol as she is by methyl tertiary butyl ether.

So I'm happy to hear about Professor Wu's research in Clostridium Thermocellum.


Yeah ethanol is more beneficial than hydrogen in economical point because in a given amount of biomass, you can get more ethanol than hydrogen so ethanol price is cheaper at the end

for example if u r to get 1 mol of both ethanol and hydrogen, ethanol is 46g/mol and hydrogen is 2g/mol. now lets look at the chemical formula of those
ethanol = C2H6O, hydrogen = H2 so by producing one more of ethanol, u sacrifies 3 mols of hydrogen(hydrogen u could had had if u decided to produce hydrogen instead of ethanol.) but still ethanol yields more energy than hydrogen because of mass ratio 46:6...let's say u get 46kg of ethanol.. then energy u get is 46kg x 40MJ/kg = 1840MJ and hydrogen is 6kg x 141MJ/kg...846MJ...

(but since fermentation is not ideal...meaning ethanol is not the only byproduct..the actual yields would be less but still ethanol is superior to hydrogen)

oh sorry ethanol is 30MJ/Kg x 46kg = 1380MJ...


Ah guys? I'm against burning hydrogen in cars too but you've missed something. this article said "for developing industrial hydrogen." Industry is a bg consummer of hydrogen:

Hydrogen is mixed with inert gases to obtain a reducing atmosphere, which is required for many applications in the metallurgical industry, such as heat treating steel and welding. It is often used in annealing stainless steel alloys, magnetic steel alloys, sintering and copper brazing.

Hydrogen can be produced by dissociation of ammonia at about 1800˚F with the aid of a catalyst - which results in a mix of 75% hydrogen and 25% mononuclear nitrogen (N rather than N2). The mix is used as a protective atmosphere for applications such as brazing or bright annealing.

Chemicals, Pharmaceuticals and Petroleum:
Hydrogen is used in large quantities as a raw material in the chemical synthesis of ammonia, methanol, hydrogen peroxide, polymers, and solvents.

In refineries, it is used to remove the sulfur that contained in crude oil. Hydrogen is catalytically combined with various intermediate processing streams and is used, in conjunction with catalytic cracking operations, to convert heavy and unsaturated compounds to lighter and more stable compounds.

The pharmaceutical industry uses hydrogen to manufacture vitamins and other pharmaceutical products.

Large quantities of hydrogen are used to purify gases (e.g. argon) that contain trace amounts of oxygen, using catalytic combination of the oxygen and hydrogen followed by removal of the resulting water.

Glass and Ceramics:
In float glass manufacturing, hydrogen is required to prevent oxidation of the large tin bath.

Food and Beverages:
It is used to hydrogenate unsaturated fatty acids in animal and vegetable oils, producing solid fats for margarine and other food products.

Hydrogen is used as a carrier gas for such active trace elements as arsine and phospine, in the manufacture of semi-conducting layers in integrated circuits.

Generators in large power plants are often cooled with hydrogen, since the gas processes high thermal conductivity and offers low friction resistance.

Liquid hydrogen is used as a rocket fuel.

The nuclear fuel industry uses hydrogen as a protective atmosphere in the fabrication of fuel rods.

The most common large-scale process for manufacturing hydrogen is steam reforming of hydrocarbons, in particular, natural gas. So even without using hydrogen as a fuel we still need a way to produce it that's free of fossil carbon.


Hydrogen can be used to synthesize methanol and other useful substances from CO2 (which is another byproduct of any fermentation process).  It can also be used to make ammonia, replacing fossil fuels used to fix nitrogen.

We need a lot more than just motor fuel.

Use biomass for home heating and natural gas as transport fuel.

Or better insulate the house and heat with wind powered heat pump, digest the biomass and mix it with natural gas and use it to power a small efficient range extender for a PHEV. When not in use the cars are also a distributed CHP system.


Just browsing down the posts so far I have to add my own 2 cents:

You don't burn hydrogen. Using a fuel cell increases the efficiency by directly converting the energy in the hydrogen bonds to electricity. Burning anything releases heat which is the most degenerate form of energy.

Hydrogen is a another method of storing chemical energy. Although the conversion of ethanol to hydrogen at this point is not efficient, it may have its applications later on.

The whole idea behind ethanol production is to create a carbon-neutral system to power our vehicles. The use of biomass is far superior to corn ethanol simply in the belief that energy and food should not compete. I support research that converts waste materials that are normally thrown in a landfill into fuel.

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