Legos® of the Future

A few weeks ago in a Forest Entomology lecture my mind was blown when I learned that trees communicate stress with allelochemicals. And now that I had finally come back to reality – POW! Mind blown again! This time it was a conversation with Erik Singsaas, research director for the Wisconsin Institute of Sustainable Technology (WIST) and associate professor at the University of Wisconsin – Stevens Point.

“We are working with what is called sludge–anything in industry that they don’t want, they call sludge. Our analysis show that the so-called ‘paper sludge’ is about 50 percent cellulose, which we can now digest into glucose and we can use that to feed to microbes that make isoprene, butanol or other compounds,” Singsaas said.

“Isoprene is a 5-Carbon organic molecule. It occurs naturally and is the basis of terpene chemistry,” said Paul Fowler, executive director of WIST. “Ethanol is an interesting biofuel from the point of view of road transportation fuel. But if you want something which is more higher performing than you need [something with] more energy per unit volume… You have four times more energy potential in the isoprene than you have in the ethanol.”

​Infograph by Brian Luedtke.

​Infograph by Brian Luedtke.

This property of isoprene means that it is a suitable “drop-in fuel for aviation fuels, so-called JP-8s, and… isoprene is also the repeating unit in natural rubber,” Fowler said.

Biomass-produced butanol (biobutanol) can be used in unmodified gasoline engines. “Before there was a large petrochemical industry, really we’re talking before 1910–that’s where all butanol and acetone came from – fermentation technology. So, it’s really reviving something that existed,” Singsaas said.

WIST has several researchers working on these types of biofuels, and multiple partnerships with companies interested in them as well.

Don Guay, director of laboratory services and associate professor at UWSP, is “figuring out how to take pulp mill waste, which is essentially a cellulose feedstock, and convert that feedstock into glucose,” Fowler said. “Really a fundamental part of the emerging bioeconomy…once you get to glucose, you can essentially go in any direction.”

A partnership with a company in Wausau, WI, called American Science and Technology, in cooperation with Kelly Klass, paper science and engineering laboratory manager, is in the process of commissioning a pilot plant to scale up production and provide potential customers with samples of materials. This is an essential stepping stone for the widespread adoption of this practice.

The big question that was asked – and answered – is, “How do we take redundancies in infrastructure and use that to our advantage? Fowler answers: “Use it to establish new industries producing things that the global economy needs, rubber for its tires, fuel for its jets.”

This is only the beginning and I am tickled pink.


Brian Luedtke

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