College of Agriculture & Natural Resources
AGNR Research

Discovering New Knowledge: UMD Researchers Isolate Fuel-Producing Bacteria

Novel method could lead to less-expensive alternative fuels
Rick Kohn, a professor in the Department of Animal and Avian Sciences.
Photo Credit: 
Edwin Remsberg

Researchers from the University of Maryland College">">College of Agriculture and Natural Resources have discovered a better, more efficient way to make alternative fuels by isolating bacteria found inside a cow’s stomach.

Rick Kohn, a professor in the Department">">Department of Animal and Avian Sciences, alongside faculty research assistant Seon-Woo Kim, developed a mathematical model incorporating the laws of thermodynamics to isolate microorganisms that produce high concentrations of biofuels. They first discovered the method using bacteria in a cow’s rumen, or first stomach chamber, but say the process can be applied to plant fiber, manure and food waste.

“It turns out there are many different organisms like these all around us, but we never knew how to isolate them or get them to make fuels until now,” says Kohn, PhD.

This technology patented by Kohn and Kim makes it possible to create alcohols like ethanol directly from plant fiber like grasses or corn stalks, or from animal and food waste. It can also create butanol, which can be used in place of gasoline.

While many researchers are working on ways of utilizing biomass to create energy, Kohn and Kim’s approach is the first to identify microorganisms that make high enough concentrations of fuels from plant fiber or gases to be separated efficiently. If concentrations are too low, it takes more energy to separate the fuel than is recovered in the process.

“As it is, we actually throw away vast amounts of energy in the form of waste materials that fill up our waste storage,” said Kohn. “Using our method, we can convert energy going into landfills into fuel.”

The research team’s findings were featured in the Journal">">Journal of Theoretical Biology in early October. Kohn says further research is needed to develop industrial uses for the technology. The initial work was funded by a grant from the Maryland">">Maryland Agricultural Experiment Station.

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