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Scientists are creating homegrown biofuels in the Peoria Ag Lab

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Nasib Qureshi is part of the Agricultural Research Service's team making bio-butanol.

It’s no secret that gas prices have risen significantly in recent weeks—and global instability is likely to increase them even more. In the long run, the best way to address this challenge is to invest in renewable energy sources.

For years, scientists at the USDA Ag Lab in Peoria have researched new ways to produce sustainable biofuels. Dr. Nasib Qureshi, senior research chemical engineer, has spent much of his career developing a process to produce butanol from a variety of bio-based materials.

“I started working on this process many years ago in New Zealand,” says Dr. Qureshi. “And there, I worked for three or four years and then decided to expand my field. I did my second PhD in Lincoln, Nebraska. Then I came to the University of Illinois to work on the same process. And then in 2003, I joined the U.S. Department of Agriculture in Peoria.”

Butanol production is among the world’s oldest commercial fermentation processes, discovered by Louis Pasteur in 1861. Between the first and second World Wars, there were two bio-butanol plants in the United States—and the largest was right here in Peoria. But both plants closed after World War II, as bio-butanol was replaced by petroleum-based products, which were cheaper and more efficient.

More recently, Dr. Qureshi and his research team have leveraged new technologies to make butanol production viable again—using agricultural waste instead of petroleum. “[We wanted] to use waste material like corn stover, or corn fiber, or wheat straw, barley straw—something that farmers leave behind in the field. And we used several feedstocks, including sweet sorghum begasse.”

Sweet sorghum is a crop best known for the syrup made from its juices. It tolerates drought and is adaptable to a wide range of growing conditions. Bagasse refers to the waste material that remains after its stalks have been crushed to extract those juices.

In December 2021, a paper co-authored by Dr. Qureshi and his team members—including Badal Saha, Siqing Liu and Nancy Nichols of the Peoria Ag Lab and Thaddeus Ezeji of Ohio State University—was published in the international journal Fermentation, detailing a new process for producing butanol from sweet sorghum bagasse. A major breakthrough was the team’s combination of a series of steps into a single streamlined process. They were able to successfully combine fermentation, product recovery and hydrolysis—the process by which the waste material is broken down into sugars—in the same vat, or bioreactor.

“When we looked at sweet sorghum bagasse, we [thought], if we can hydrolyze in the same reactor, that would produce butanol at an economic price,” explains Dr. Qureshi. “And then [we can] ferment it in the same reactor and recover in the same reactor.”

In developing these new processes, Dr. Qureshi’s team has demonstrated that bio-butanol can still be produced economically. As a fuel it is far superior to ethanol, and unlike ethanol, it can utilize the same infrastructure as gasoline.

“Bio-butanol contains 33% more energy than ethanol. So, for the same amount of butanol, you can run a car for 33% more miles,” he explains. “It burns cleaner than ethanol. It can be transported in existing pipelines, and it can be blended in gasoline in any proportion.”

The viability of butanol as a biofuel has not only been shown in the lab, but on the highway as well. “A friend of mine drove a truck from Blacklick, Ohio to San Francisco on butanol alone,” says Dr. Qureshi. “And he made another trip from Ohio to South Dakota just to prove it can work—that it’s a good fuel.”

If prices continue to rise, we may once again find ourselves searching for a bio-based alternative to gasoline. But as we’ve learned from the recent past, that is no sure thing without a long-term plan—and the economic incentives to get there.

“About eight to 10 years ago, gas prices were very high,” Dr. Qureshi explains. “At that time there was good interest in making butanol. There was a plant in Minnesota that produced butanol and it was running, but then gas prices went down and they had to shut it down. So as long as gasoline prices are down, it will be hard to compete.”

In the short term, policymakers tend to prioritize inexpensive gasoline over the long-term transition to renewable energy. But as Dr. Qureshi notes, there are plenty of reasons to make the switch. Electric vehicles will be one part of the solution, but biofuels are likely to be another.

“It can make us independent of foreign oil. It burns cleaner. We can depend on our own crops… As long as there is light and there is water, you can keep producing this biofuel. And also, our economy will grow. Homegrown biofuel.”

When the transition to renewable energy comes, it will likely have its roots here in the Peoria Ag Lab.

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Jonathan Wright is a correspondent for WCBU. He joined the station in 2022.