Bacteria Break Down Waste, Build Bioplastics

Pullman, WA — The same type of bacteria that help break down paper mill waste could also become an increasingly viable source of environmentally friendly biopolymers that can be used to make bioplastics, glues, and composite building materials.

Washington State University (WSU) Professor Mike Wolcott has teamed with fellow WSU Professor and Agricultural Research Center scientist Jinwen Zhang, and other scientists and engineers at the WSU Wood Materials Engineering Laboratory, University of California-Davis, and the Idaho National Engineering Lab to focus on a class of naturally occurring bacteria that produce and store polyhydroxyalkanoates (PHAs).

PHAs are chain-like molecules, called polymers, that are found in plastics, glues, wood, plants, and even in mussel shells.

“Polymers are what bind the fibers together in wood or plants or plastics,” Wolcott explained. “Until now, the plastics we’ve been using have been petroleum based. We could reduce our dependence on international oil if we could make the way we produce PHAs more cost effective and find new uses for a less-pure version of them.”

Firms in the U.S., China, and Brazil have commercially produced PHAs using fermentation techniques for many years. But, Wolcott said, the current process is expensive both financially and environmentally.

“Commercially produced PHAs are fairly expensive when used in their purest form,” he said. “The bacteria feed-stock is expensive because it is raised on glucose, and the chemicals used to extract the polymer from the bacteria are expensive and not very environmentally friendly.”

Wolcott’s research group is attacking both challenges. They are exploiting the fact that the same types of bacte-ria that are being grown commercially for PHAs are also used by paper mills in their water reuse sites to convert phosphates into phosphorous.

“The production of PHAs by those bacteria has been fairly low,” he said. “One challenge is to find the right environmental conditions at the wastewater treatment site to enhance production—we are trying to get these guys as fat as possible.

" By regulating the treatment process, we can substantially increase the amount of PHAs produced, in addition to reducing the phosphates to a very low level.”

Wolcott also has developed composite materials that can utilize a simple centrifuge process for extracting the PHAs into a crude form.

This physical process is much less damaging to the environment and much less expensive than the chemical extraction process currently used.

When used in building materials, the composites can provide a substantial market for the crude PHAs.

The result of the group’s work?A more plentiful supply of crude PHAs.

Wolcott’s team is also working on finding new uses for less-pure PHAs. He has received grants from both the National Science Foundation and the U.S. Department of Energy to pursue production of PHAs and new compos-ite materials made with PHAs.

Some of those materials include new building materials that potentially could replace wood or traditional plastics.

“We are working with the Navy, for example, on new materials for docks, piers, and bridges,” Wolcott said.

Ohio Agriculture to Chemicals, Polymers, and Advanced Materials Task Force

The Ohio Agriculture to Chemicals, Polymers, and Advanced Materials Task Force produced a detailed report that offers many recommendations regarding the alignment of Ohio’s agricultural industry and its chemicals, polymers, and advanced materials industries.

The report provides an overview and the trends of these industries, as well as recommendations on how these sectors could be aligned to create a new ag-bioproducts industry.

The members of the Task Force were unanimous in their recognition that Ohio is poised to be a leader in this burgeoning field.

The Task Force received approximately 40 recommendations on how the two sectors can align, all of which are included in an appendix to the report.

The members of the task force considered these recommendations and chose ten that deserve particular attention – four first tier recommendations and six second tier recommendations.


Ohio Researching Russian Dandelion
as Domestic Source of Natural Rubber

$3 Million Third Frontier Award
to help develop new crop industry

WOOSTER, OH — Ohio State University’s Ohio Agricultural Research and Development Center (OARDC) and the Ohio BioProducts Innovation Center (OBIC), along with other university and industry partners, have been awarded a $3 million Third Frontier Wright Projects Program grant to develop a renewable, domestic source of natural rubber that is expected to create new industries and jobs by bringing together the state’s agricultural and rubber-products sectors.

(Editor's Note: view related video below about the OBIC)

The grant — awarded on a competitive basis following an extensive commercial and peer-review process — was announced in late June 2008 by Ohio Lt. Gov. Lee Fisher, chair of the Ohio Third Frontier Commission. The funding was contingent upon State Controlling Board approval.

“We are very pleased to be involved with this transformational project to develop a source of natural rubber that can be produced in Ohio,” said OARDC Director Steve Slack.

“Ohio has a long, proud tradition in the production of quality rubber products that impact every facet of our transportation industries. We can visualize the next-generation rubber source being both homegrown and home-refined.”

Project partners include Akron-based Delta Plant Technologies (which initiated the project in 2005), the University of Akron, Bridgestone Americas Center for Technology and Research, Cooper Tire & Rubber Company, and Veyance Technologies Inc. (formerly Goodyear Engineered Products).

Also involved are Oregon State University and the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA).

Besides the "Russian" dandelion, there is also interest in using "guayule" as another domestic source of natural rubber, as shown here with a shoe sole made from the shrub.
Photo: Goodyear

The source of rubber being domesticated at OARDC’s Wooster campus is a type of dandelion, Taraxacum kok-saghyz (TKS), native to the former Soviet republics of Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan. Commonly known as Russian dandelion, TKS produces high-quality natural rubber in its fleshy taproot, comparable in performance to the latex extracted from the only commercially available source of natural rubber today: the Brazilian rubber tree, Hevea brasiliensis.

But while rubber from Hevea trees, grown almost exclusively in southeast Asia, is the industry standard, businesses and researchers see an immediate need for an alternative, domestic source of this material that the U.S. Congress has recognized as “strategic” for both manufacturing and defense.

The reasons, Delta Plant President Bryan Kinnamon said, are increasingly undeniable.

“The United States depends on 100-percent imported natural rubber, whose price has increased almost seven-fold since 2002, costing the country $3.3 billion a year,” Kinnamon pointed out. “Additionally, natural-rubber supplies are becoming increasingly unstable as a result of rapidly expanding growth in China and India, decline in rubber production due to industrialization in Southeast Asia, and increasing utilization of this material by former Soviet Bloc countries. Estimates indicate that demand will exceed supply in 2020 by approximately 15 percent.”

Natural rubber is essential for the U.S. economy and national security because it provides performance characteristics not available from synthetic, petroleum-derived rubber, explained Stephen Myers, director of OBIC.

The OBIC is an Ohio State-based center created through another Third Frontier award in 2005 to boost collaborations between Ohio’s two largest industries, agriculture and polymers (see web link below).

“North America consumes 2.7 billion pounds of natural rubber, 80 percent of which is used in tires,” Myers said. “Trucking, construction and aviation tires require a high percentage of natural rubber to meet performance characteristics, making natural rubber critical to these industries as well as to the U.S. strategic defenses. Aircraft tires, for example, require nearly 100 percent natural rubber to meet heat tolerance and required adhesion specifications.”

TKS as a producer of natural rubber has an interesting history. It was first found to be a viable source of rubber by the Soviets in the 1930s, and during World War II the USDA conducted a feasibility study of the plant for possible production in 28 states, including Ohio, and developed an extraction process. But the project was abandoned following the liberation of rubber tree-producing regions from the Japanese and advances in synthetic rubber production.

More than 60 years later, however, the Russian dandelion’s time may have finally arrived. And this time, rubber is not the only strategic resource this lawn-weed look-alike could provide us — researchers have also found it to be an excellent source of ethanol.

Matt Kleinhenz, a crop scientist with OARDC and OSU Extension, is leading the domestication and rubber-yield enhancement of TKS plants in Ohio. Beginning with seeds brought from native TKS-growing regions, Kleinhenz and his team identified numerous individuals that can produce 15 or more pounds of rubber from every 100 pounds of dry roots. Selection of promising individuals from wild-collected seed continues, but Kleinhenz’s team is also working to develop superior lines and varieties through breeding.

“Long-term, traditional breeding methods and modern genetic approaches will be integrated in order to continually raise the performance of the newly formed TKS crop, just as similar integration has been done for other crops,” explained Kleinhenz, an associate professor in the Department of Horticulture and Crop Science. “Improved growing and harvesting methods developed by Ohio State and its partners will also be a key to the success of the new TKS-based industries.”

Tests of rubber produced from TKS in Wooster by the University of Akron’s Goodyear Polymer Center have found the material to be of comparable quality to Hevea rubber.

But that’s not all. Forty-five percent or more of TKS dry matter is comprised of inulin, a naturally occurring carbohydrate that’s increasingly being used as a food additive and can also be turned into ethanol similar to the way this biofuel is produced from corn.

“Basically, TKS will provide two products: rubber and inulin,” said Fred Michel, an associate professor in the Department of Food, Agricultural and Biological Engineering with both OARDC and OSU Extension, whose team is in charge of extraction and processing techniques for the Russian dandelions. “The extracted inulin could provide a low cost feedstock to Ohio’s new ethanol plants, thereby reducing the amount of corn used for this process.”

The Third Frontier grant will help partners in this project conduct validation and qualification of Russian dandelion rubber by industrial users for a range of applications, but focusing on Ohio’s leading tire industry. Most of the $3 million will go toward building a pilot-scale processing facility on OARDC’s Wooster campus that will generate 20 metric tons of rubber a year for industrial testing.

Delta Plant envisions Ohio will have the first module of a TKS commercial facility in place by 2013. This plant will be expanded to 60 million pounds of natural rubber annually by 2015. Rubber-processing facilities will be located near the areas where TKS is grown, much like the corn ethanol model. Inulin, Kinnamon said, would be sold to existing ethanol plants in the region as a low-cost ethanol feedstock.

“This project has been possible thanks to the fact that we have the state’s best polymer and agricultural research centers right here in northeast Ohio,” Kinnamon highlighted. “It’s a match made in heaven.”

For more information about the Russian dandelion rubber project, log on to the Program of Excellence in Natural Rubber Alternatives’ (PENRA) website,, or contact Bill Ravlin, OARDC Associate Director and principal investigator in the project, at (330) 263-3705 or

The Ohio Third Frontier Wright Projects Program ( provides grants to support specifically defined near-term commercialization projects requiring major capital acquisitions and improvements at Ohio colleges and universities and non-profit research institutions. Projects must involve one or more Ohio companies and be in the areas of advanced materials, power and propulsion, information technology and instruments, controls, and electronics.

Note: OARDC and OSU Extension are the research and outreach arms, respectively, of Ohio State’s College of Food, Agricultural, and Environmental Sciences.


Ohio Bioproducts Innovation Center:


Delta Plant Technologies Home Page:

Editor's note: Website link doesn't work anymore, and forwarding information hasn't been found yet.


UK scientists instrumental in research, development
for Alltech community bio-refinery

By Carol L. Spence

LEXINGTON, KY –– An international biotechnology firm with headquarters in Jessamine County is moving forward with plans to build a rural community bio-refinery in Washington County. Researchers at the University of Kentucky College of Agriculture and Center for Applied Energy Research will play an instrumental part in the research and development end of the innovative project.

Alltech’s plan for a bio-refinery in Springfield is funded by a grant of up to $30 million from the U.S. Department of Energy and an $8 million incentive from the Kentucky Economic Development Finance Authority.

According to a company press release, this will be one of the first biorefineries in the country to use up to 30 percent cellulose, the structural material in plants, to produce ethanol and value-added by-products. Examples of cellulosic materials include switchgrass, corn cobs and corn stover.

Transportation costs will always remain a key factor in how well the economics work out in planning biorefineries.
Photo: Karl Ohm

“Right now we typically make ethanol by using enzymes to break down the starch in corn kernels into a sugar,” said Czarena Crofcheck, associate professor in the UK Department of Biosystems and Agricultural Engineering and one of the researchers on the project. “While we’re breaking down those sugars, we’re using something that could be food. We need to be utilizing other things that are available and not within the food system.”

Crofcheck and fellow Biosystems and Agricultural Engineering Associate Professor Michael Montross will be developing ways to harvest, store and move the cellulosic materials, for instance corncobs.

“The goal right now is to produce grain, so we need to shift that around and do the legwork and the research and development to figure out how to make it so the corncob’s the product,” she said.

“The rural community bio-refinery is truly a missionary of new technologies,” Pearse Lyons, president and founder of Alltech, was quoted as saying in a company press release.

“Cellulosic ethanol utilizes raw materials which are readily available and which alleviate the current demand for grain for ethanol production. With commodity prices reaching an all time high and with ethanol production forecast to account for 30 percent of the U.S. corn harvest by 2010, we must focus our attention on a sustainable path to alternative energies.”

Part of the bio-refinery’s sustainability is a result of its smaller size.

“There are some economies of scale associated with this kind of smaller, community biorefinery concept that will be very advantageous,” said Scott Shearer, UK biosystems and agricultural engineering chair.

Montross said the idea is to transport biomass inputs from no farther than a 30- or 40-mile radius.

“A big issue with moving plant material to make ethanol is the transportation. The material is not very dense, and it’s difficult to transport. There are two competing models right now,” he said, referring to the typical larger biorefinery design and Alltech’s smaller scaled version.

“I don’t think anybody’s really asked the question, do you want to see 400 trucks a day going by your house hauling biomass to an ethanol plant. I think most people would say no. So in many ways, Alltech’s idea is a good one. You keep the refinery smaller so the transportation is less.”

If it’s important to examine the handling of inputs, it’s also important in a sustainable system to find uses for the resulting by-products. That is where UK Center for Applied Energy Research (CAER) comes in.

A big issue with moving plant material to make cellulosic ethanol is the transportation. The material is not very dense, and it’s difficult to transport. ethanol plant
Photo: Karl Ohm

CAER researchers, in mutual collaboration with College of Agriculture researchers, are investigating ways to use the residues of the fermentation process. Normally, when grains are used for ethanol production, the byproduct is distillers grains, which can then be used for livestock feed. But cellulosic parts of the plant do not have a feed value.

“This lignin-rich stream currently doesn't have a use. We are planning to test the performance of thermochemical processes to convert that stream into something of value," said Rodney Andrews, CAER director.

“One of the options is we can use it to produce heat and power for that plant. The other is some of the collaborative work we’ve been doing with Biosystems and Agricultural Engineering in converting it to chemical feed stocks that you can sell to the chemical market, so that it’s not just a waste stream. You’re actually getting value from much of it, as well.”

The center will also be doing a process model of the entire system for integrated heat and power.

“I think it will present some interesting opportunities,” Shearer said. “What Alltech is attempting to do is minimize any of their waste streams or byproduct streams that would have to be transported elsewhere… Only time is going to tell, obviously, but I think it is a very unique idea, and if they’re successful, it’s something that could be replicated in virtually every other community in the state of Kentucky.”


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