Zhang’s research enlists enzymes to deliver renewable energy

To produce ethanol from plant material, researchers must follow three main steps, said Percival Zhang, associate professor of biological systems engineering in Virginia Tech’s College of Agriculture and Life Sciences

Those steps involve pretreating to separate the components of plant cell walls; breaking down cellulose, the carbohydrate that is the major component of plant cell walls; and fermenting the resulting sugars. If a gentle enough process is used, researchers could find potentially valuable byproducts from cellulose breakdown, Zhang said.


Percival Zhang and biological systems engineering graduate Geoff Moxley examine wood chips, which is a biofuel raw material. Other raw material candidates are agricultural waste and switchgrass. Percival Zhang and biological systems engineering graduate Geoff Moxley examine wood chips, which is a biofuel raw material. Other raw material candidates are agricultural waste and switchgrass.

As a scientist at Dartmouth, then at Virginia Tech, Zhang developed a gentle and cost-effective pretreatment process. He combined chemical and enzyme-based solvents to replace the traditional high-heat, high-pressure process. The solvent solution can even be recycled.

The weakened cellulose can be fractionated into four products: lignin, acetic acid, hemicellulose sugars, and amorphous cellulose. "While the sugars are the target for biofuels, the lignin and acetic acid co-products can also generate income, making a biorefinery more profitable," Zhang said. "For instance, lignin has many industrial uses, from glue to polymer substitutes and carbon fiber."

In 2008, Biomethodes, a French biotechnology company, licensed Zhang's technology for converting biomass to ethanol and other products from Virginia Tech Intellectual Properties Inc. In March 2011, Biomethodes announced plans to build a pilot plant in Virginia. Goals are to improve the efficiency of the breakdown of celluose, optimize production of enzymes, reduce enzyme cost, and then do industrial scale testing with a commercial process deployment. 

“Our strategy is to enable next generation of biocatalysts and biofuels by co-developing pre-industrial processes, to be further integrated by industrial partners,” said Gilles Amsallem, Biomethodes chief executive officer.

Locating the plant in Virginia will enhance the collaboration with Zhang as the process is optimized, Amsallem said. A U.S. based-plant is also important because “in the United States, the time to market is shorter for ethanol,” said Amsallem.

In the meantime, Zhang has developed another energy product from biomass sugars – hydrogen to power a fuel cell. His aim is to have the conversion occur in your car's fuel tank or at a fuel cell site.

U.S. Secretary of Energy Stephen Chu told Technology Review in 2009, "Four miracles need to happen before hydrogen fuel cells can be practical. … We need better ways to produce, distribute, and store hydrogen, and we need better, cheaper fuel cells."

Zhang said he is undaunted. He has already come up with a way to produce the highest yield of hydrogen from biomass sugar. And he has an idea and successful results from proof-of-concept experiments for hydrogen storage and distribution.

Energy from starch and water

In 2007, Zhang and colleagues Barbara R. Evans and Jonathan R. Mielenz of Oak Ridge National Laboratory and Robert C. Hopkins and Michael W.W. Adams of the University of Georgia succeeded in completely converting starch and water into hydrogen using a combination of 13 enzymes never found together in nature.


Jonathan Mielenz, leader of the Bioconversion Science and Technology Group in the Oak Ridge National Laboratory’s Biosciences Division Jonathan Mielenz, leader of the Bioconversion Science and Technology Group in the Oak Ridge National Laboratory’s Biosciences Division, is studying a microbe that could prove more cost effective than current methods in transforming cellulose from sources such as switchgrass and poplar trees into ethanol.

Starch is used by plants for energy storage and is very stable. The enzymes use the energy in the starch to break up water into carbon dioxide and hydrogen. The hydrogen is used by the fuel cell to create electricity. Water, a byproduct of that fuel cell process, goes back into the tank for the starch-fed enzymes to convert to hydrogen and so on.

Experiments conducted at Oak Ridge National Laboratory using off-the-shelf enzymes from bacteria, yeast, rabbit, archaea, and spinach confirmed that it all takes place at low temperature – about 86 degrees Fahrenheit.

The researchers used cellulosic materials isolated from wood chips, but crop waste or switchgrass could also be used. It is not necessary to use food, such as corn, Zhang said.

And now Zhang has invented inexpensive, cell-free enzymes to convert biomass to energy. The result is three times the hydrogen with no left over, irrelevant cell mass.

And all the enzymes are produced by the E. coli bacterium.

Hydrogen storage and distribution

Yes. Zhang is recommending putting E.coli and a form of sugar in your vehicle's tank.

Hydrogen gas is difficult to store and to transport. But not if it is stored in a carbohydrate, something like flour or powdered sugar, enriched with enzymes. You could buy a bag of it from a grocery store or dry goods outlet – an instant mix to fuel a fuel cell. An onboard battery provides immediate energy for starting the vehicle while the enzymes get to work on their sugary snack. The fuel cell will recharge the battery later from excess sugar energy.

Stationary energy sites, such as large fuel cell stacks, can also take delivery of carbohydrate powder from local or distant biorefineries and generate hydrogen by using an enzyme cocktail, Zhang said.

The use of renewable carbohydrates and enzymes addresses the challenges associated with storage, safety, distribution, and infrastructure.

  • For more information on this topic, contact Susan Trulove at 540-231-5369.

Economic benefit

OptaFuel US Inc. is building a pilot plant in Abingdon, Va., to scale-up and demonstrate the company’s technologies for transforming plant biomass into fuels, lignin materials, and chemicals. The pilot plant will integrate two major technologies, according to Anthony Scime, OptaFuel’s chief executive officer:

  • A pretreatment and delignification process that breaks down biomass
  • A hydrolysis enzyme optimization technology to improve cellulose degradation into fermentable sugars

“The first of those two technologies was invented at Virginia Tech and the second by OptaFuel’s parent company, Biomethodes SA, France. Both technologies are being commercialized by OptaFuel for the North American market,” Scime said.

Details about the pilot plant are available online.

Educational benefit

    Y.H. Percival Zhang works with students.

To make sure the next generation realizes the potential and develops the skills to create energy miracles, Percival Zhang is taking on students at every level, including doing show-and-tell for grade-schoolers.

He leads an undergraduate course called Unit Operations in Biological Systems to show students how concepts from their basic science courses come together in applications. He finds room in his lab for first-generation college students and students from underrepresented groups.

He has introduced a graduate-level Enzyme Engineering course to the biological systems engineering program at Virginia Tech to teach students how to use enzyme sciences and technologies to solve biotechnology and biochemical engineering problems.

"My goal is to teach the next generation of scientist and engineers," Zhang said. "We need people with skills and passion to address key challenges in the sustainability revolution."

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