Student finds better ethanol option

ARLINGTON – A Sibley East High School sophomore earned a spot at the Intel International Science and Engineering Fair (ESEF) in Phoenix next month for his research on the use of anaerobic fermentation on pre-treated biomass to streamline biofuel production.

Jonah Butler earned a Gold Grand Award at the Minnesota State Science & Engineering Fair at the Doubletree Hilton in Bloomington last weekend. The award recognizes achievement not only in his category, but in a cross-section of similar research.

The ESEF is the world’s largest international pre-college science competition. It provides an annual forum for more than 1,500 high school students in grades 9-12 from 70 countries to show their independent research as they compete for more than $3 million.

“He’s an exceptional student, doing research at a level where he could have a potentially significant impact on industry and the environment,” Sibley East Principal James Amsden said of Butler. “He seeks the highest-level classes we offer – including pre-calculus – to make the most of his academic experience. He ran cross country last fall but spent a good deal of late fall and winter doing research.”

Butler said he began studying renewable energy use in the fourth grade. Last year, he did research on streamlining and increasing ethanol production using pre-treated cellulosic (corn stover) fuel at the University of Minnesota Pulp and Paper Products Departments.

In an 18-page research report, Butler wrote that the purpose of his investigation was to determine if anaerobic fermentation could be used as a feasible method to produce ethanol biofuel; and which of the trial bacteria – clostridium thermocellum, thermolactium or a co-culture using equal parts of both micro-organisms would produce the most ethanol.

Butler said his research showed that by comparing anaerobic fermentation on pre-treated biomass (corn stover) with the current hydrolysis method, ethanol costs could be reduced as much as 20 cents a gallon by combining hydrolysis and fermentation.

In his research, Butler wrote that current ethanol production is not profitable long-term because the production process is subject to fluctuating corn prices.

Butler said his research showed that corn stover (waste stalks left in the field after harvest) fermentation with co-cultures enables cellulosic ethanol production that is a superior, renewable energy source in much of the country.

“Cellulosic ethanol is more complicated to process but a concentrated effort by many agencies including the Department of Energy bring it within reach,” Butler wrote in his research.

He cited other expert opinions.

“Rewards can be substantial, according to former U.S. Energy Secretary Samuel Bodman. “Cellulosic ethanol contains more net energy and emits significantly fewer greenhouse gases than ethanol made from corn.”

“This could help reduce our dependance on fossil fuels,” Butler said. “Enzymatic hydrolysis (existing ethanol production) and yeast fermentation only creates glucose. Bacteria strains I did showed (pre-treated) corn stover biomass creates xylose, a biomass sugar that produces more ethanol and about 35 percent less greenhouse gas emissions than corn derived ethanol.

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Fritz Busch can be e-mailed at

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