Two of the big challenges human kind faces in the 21th century are how we are going to meet increasing energy needs in the face of diminishing supply of fossil energy and how we are going to maintain environmental quality in light of increasing population, resource demand, and waste production. These two problems are related since a large share of environmental problem is directly related to energy conversion and utilization today. Bio-commodity engineering is an emergent field featuring biological production of fuels, bulk chemicals, and materials in a renewable and environmental sound way.
Lignocellulosic biomass is a rich, non-food source of fermentable sugars that once released, can be converted to a variety of value-added products such as biofuels and bio-plastics. The challenge, however, lies in efficiently and economically deconstructing the structural polysaccharides cellulose, hemicellulose and pectin locked in the biomass cell-walls to its constituent soluble sugars (glucose, xylose, arabinose, galactose and mannose). Plant cell-wall degrading enzymes are produced in nature by fungi, bacteria, insects and even plants that can be ultimately utilized for industrial scale conversion of lignocellulosic biomass. Our research focuses on addressing the many challenges to an economically viable industrial usage of plant cell-wall degrading enzymes in biomass conversion. Current and future projects include characterizing enzymatic digestion in high-solids saccharification reactions, investigating detailed mechanisms of cellulase-cellulose interactions, and developing new process and new microorganism(s) for bioconversion of biomass to ethanol.
Biodiesel produced from plant oils and animal fat is advantageous in terms of sustainable resource supply, lower emissions, and biodegradability. However, the production cost of biodiesel is substantially higher than that of petroleum-based diesel due to high feedstock costs, high processing costs, and the need for disposal of the byproduct, glycerol. There is a need to lower biodiesel production costs by developing alternative approaches for both biodiesel production and byproduct utilization. Current and future projects include developing new lipase-base biodiesel production process and investigating the alternative use of byproduct glycerol.