UT research into cheap fuel breakthrough

Now that gas prices are floating around four bucks a gallon -- scientists are looking at all kinds of alternatives. Each kind of fuel -- hydrogen, bio- diesel, or corn- based ethanol -- has positives and negatives.

But some research is underway at the University of Toledo into a fuel that would be cheap, locally- produced, and plentiful. And it's as green as the grass.

In corn country -- you score political points promoting corn based ethanol. Just ask Governor Strickland. Gov. Strickland: "Ohio and Ohioans would prefer to have our energy needs met by the Midwestern farmer than Mideastern sheik."

But now corn based ethanol has lost its luster. Food prices are skyrocketing due in part to demand for corn to make fuel.

What if there were a way to have your fuel and not eat it too? What if you could make ethanol from something that isn't food? Switch grass and other grasses grow wild in northwest Ohio. They don't need planting -- they don't need fertilizer. All you need to do is harvest it -- extract the sugar and ferment it into ethanol.

That TMs exactly what they want to do at the University of Toledo. Professor Sasidhar Varanasi figures that ethanol made from stuff like switch grass could replace a lot of the nation's gasoline. Varanasi: "Enough to replace about 30 percent of the gasoline consumption."

Corn is easy to make into ethanol -- whiskey makers have been doing it for centuries. But grass and wood are are hard to make into ethanol because they are -- well -- they're hard. About 25 percent lignin -- 25 percent hemicellulose -- and 50 percent cellulose. If you could break down the hemi cellulose and cellulose into sugar -- you could ferment all of that into alcohol.

Dr. Varanasi's team has devised a special salt solution to break down that tough stuff. And without toxic acids. And remember the hemi cellulose? That's a problem -- because the sugar it contains -- zylose -- is hard to turn into ethanol.

Patricia Relue -- another member of the UT team -- has figured out a way to turn zylose into zyulose -- so everyday yeast can make it into alcohol. A magic bullet? Relue: "Probably as magic as there is out there at the moment."

So, why haven't we heard more about this? Because other researchers, elsewhere, are also trying to crack this problem. Varanasi: "So in a way we have worked our best not to let anybody know what's going on."

Dr. Varanasi's group has received a grant to build a demonstration plant that can make batches of ethanol -- 25 gallons at a time. If that works, they could be making commercial quantities in a couple of years -- sooner if the price of fuel keeps rising.