By Lee Anna Sherman
From microbes to plants, OSU researchers are leveraging biological materials to develop a variety of new products. Here are some highlights:
Professor Michael Penner in the Department of Food Science and Technology is studying one of the holy grails of the bio-based fuel industry: the economical conversion of woody plant materials into ethanol and other value-added products. In the Pacific Northwest, where woody biomass is an abundant source of potential energy, the search for enzymes that can break down the tough-walled cellulose holds huge promise. Unlike the starches found in agricultural crops like corn, which can be easily converted to sugar and then to liquid fuel, woody materials are, in Penner’s words, “recalcitrant” to conversion — that is, they require extra chemical intervention before they reach the simple-sugar stage. Penner’s lab is working on cost-effective ways to attain this critical “sugar platform.”
Fungi that commonly colonize old tree stumps may benefit the paper industry and the environment. In the Department of Chemical Engineering, Christine Kelly is using white-rot fungi and yeast to create a nontoxic alternative for bleaching paper. She has transferred a gene from the fungi, which produce an enzyme that degrades lignin, into yeast that can be cultivated under industrial conditions.
While the enzyme — manganese peroxidase — has shown promise as a bleaching agent in the laboratory, Kelly and Curtis Lajoie, a research professor in Civil, Construction, and Environmental Engineering, are refining the production process. Their goal is to coax the yeast to create an active, stable and highly concentrated enzyme that can replace currently used chemicals.
Turning sewage into voltage is the aim of Assistant Professor Hong Liu’s research in OSU’s Department of Biological and Ecological Engineering. Some bacteria living in wastewater can kick off electrons from pollutants. So Liu is developing microbial fuel cells to capture the energy stored in wastewater, while simultaneously treating the water. She envisions a day when developing nations, such as her native China, will have waste-treatment facilities powered by the very waste they process, making them energy self-sufficient and thus more widely affordable.
Liu is also working with Kaichang Li in Wood Science and Engineering to generate electricity from wood. A mixture of the hundreds of small, organic compounds in hydrolyzed wood, the researchers have recently discovered, can be converted directly into electricity with microbial fuel cells. “Liu and I are seeking funding to build the world’s first integrated, portable, compact system for generating electricity directly from wood,” says Li.
OSU agronomist Daryl Ehrensing is part of a private-sector initiative to develop a domestic source of natural rubber. With support from Akron, Ohio-based start-up Delta Plant Technologies, Ehrensing is principal investigator for the Department of Crop and Soil Science breeding program to grow a high-yield variety of the Russian dandelion. The plant, native to Kazakhstan, produces a high-quality latex that can be used in auto and aircraft tires. Other universities working on the project are Ohio State, Washington State and Montana State. In another rubber-related project at OSU, this one funded by a German rubber chemical company, Kaichang Li in Wood Science and Engineering is investigating ways to use cellulose crystals instead of silica and carbon black in tire manufacturing.
Yanyun Zhao, an associate professor in the Department of Food Science and Technology, is focusing on the freshness, health benefits and market value of foods. She is developing biodegradable and edible films and coatings to prolong the shelf-life of perishable delicacies such as strawberries and other small fruits. Other projects include vacuum impregnation and infusion techniques for value-added fruit and vegetable products.