Running on refuse: NIFA grant to fund MSU study of biomass-derived transportation fuel


By: Meg Henderson

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Posted: 1/26/2024

Running on refuse: NIFA grant to fund MSU study of biomass-derived transportation fuel Photo By: El Barbary Hassan (Photo submitted)

STARKVILLE, Miss.—The future of fuel is practical, sustainable and green, and Mississippi State's Department of Sustainable Bioproducts is committed to discovering solutions that will power tomorrow's fuels.

El Barbary Hassan, department professor and scientist in the university's Forest and Wildlife Research Center, has received a National Institute of Food and Agriculture grant totaling over $610,000 to take foundational steps toward producing viable fuels from agricultural waste.

Today, over 90% of the energy consumed worldwide comes from fossil fuels—a finite resource with often volatile prices. With the added concerns about the environmental impact of burning fossil fuels, scientists are looking to a myriad of viable renewable energy sources.

Hassan and his team of experts, including postdoctoral researcher Islam Elsayed, aim to convert leftover biomass from agricultural production—refuse or waste that would otherwise be discarded—into useful chemical substances, building blocks for fuels and other chemicals that would typically come from petroleum-based sources. Over the three-year grant period, the scientists will work on creating and refining these chemicals derived from sugars present in the biomass.

Over the next 50 years, biomass energy is expected to provide up to 35-40% of global energy consumption. This renewable resource is more readily available, and its pricing is lower and less vulnerable to fluctuations than that of fossil fuels. The waste-derived fuel that Hassan's team is working on will contribute to that goal and also reduce global carbon dioxide emissions.

"Increasing our use of biomass-based fuels keeps agricultural waste out of landfills and reduces carbon dioxide emissions," said Hassan. "Today, the waste that doesn't end up in a landfill is burned, so capturing that biomass for future use will reduce air emissions in several ways."

Hassan explained the carbohydrates from biomass material are ideal for producing liquid biofuel additives because of their high energy densities and blending properties in normal diesel fuel. The chemical substance he and his team are focused on has energy properties similar to gasoline, which are also 40% greater than those of ethanol.

"By using the millions of tons of biomass that would otherwise go to waste from farming and forestry activities, we could potentially replace a significant portion of our transportation fuel with more sustainable alternatives in the coming years," he said. "The United States has set a goal to replace 30% of its current petroleum consumption with sustainable fuels by that time."

Rubin Shmulsky, professor and sustainable bioproducts department head, said "Dr. Hassan's project exemplifies the groundbreaking work our faculty do to solve real-world problems, helping people and the environment today and setting the groundwork for the renewable energy technology of tomorrow."

Largely agricultural states, including Mississippi, have much to gain from these efforts over the next few decades. Farmers and foresters can see additional sources of revenue from selling their waste products, and the need for processing and refining these biofuels should create jobs nationwide.

For more information about MSU's Department of Sustainable Bioproducts, visit www.bioproducts.msstate.edu. For more on the Forest and Wildlife Research Center, visit www.fwrc.msstate.edu.

Mississippi State University is taking care of what matters. Learn more at www.msstate.edu.


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