A multi-disciplinary team of researchers working to make fuel ethanol from ordinary straw includes, from left, Adam Mark, a PhD student in microbiology; Amanda Quirk, a PhD student in chemistry; and Kyle Reiter, a master’s student in physics.

Helping to make greener and cheaper fuel ethanol from ordinary straw instead of food crops like corn is the goal of a University of Guelph project blending microbiology, chemistry and physics.

This past spring, three researchers received a three-year, $500,000 grant from the Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council to continue their studies of non-food plant material for making cellulosic ethanol.

The new collaborative development and research grant will help them to probe further how micro-organisms break down tough cellulose fibres, unlocking biomass sugars to be fermented into fuel.

More efficient cellulose degradation is a key to producing a viable competitor to available fuel sources, says Prof. John Dutcher, Department of Physics. “We will study enzymes and enzyme processes to make the process more efficient.”

He’s already spent three years on the project with molecular and cellular biology professor Anthony Clarke and chemist Jacek Lipkowski.

They’re working with Iogen Corp. in Ottawa, a biotech company running a pilot plant to produce ethanol. The industrial partner provides enzymes to allow the Guelph researchers to study cellulose degradation in ultra-fine detail.

So far, the company supplies fuel from its pilot plant back to Ottawa-area farmers who provide the straw biomass.

As a microbiologist, Clarke is interested in microbes whose enzymes can chew through cellulose. That feat can be performed by only a relative handful of fungi and bacteria. He’s also supplying cellulose itself, made by a certain bacterium.

His Guelph partners use sophisticated tools and techniques to learn about how cellulose degrades. Using the new funding, they will test how combinations of enzymes, called cellulases, attack the plant material. Says Clarke: “We’ll do protein engineering and use techniques developed by Jacek and John to study cellulases.”

Dutcher uses surface plasmon resonance to watch enzymes break down cellulose molecules. This technique uses light to excite electrons and measure adsorption of materials onto surfaces down to nanometers (one-billionth as large as a metre) in size.

Complementing his studies, researchers in Lipkowski’s lab use atomic force microscopy to watch the process. “It’s important to understand how the structure of the fibre influences degradation,” says Lipkowski, holder of the Canada Research Chair in Electrochemistry.

His PhD student Amanda Quirk says it’s a complicated but important problem to solve, for environmental and food- and energy-security reasons. “We want to help improve the making of ethanol out of non-food sources of cellulose,” she says.

Dutcher says other researchers also study this process using more malleable cellulose solutions. But those solutions often fail to match actual conditions.

The techniques used here give Guelph researchers a look at the messier real world. “That’s our advantage. We can look at more relevant samples and test enzymes that are generally available, as well as specialized enzymes that Iogen can provide us,” says Dutcher, who holds the Canada Research Chair in Soft Matter Physics.

Clarke also studies peptidoglycan, which helps make bacterial cell walls tough and rigid. He leads a team of newly funded Canadian and British researchers looking to help develop drugs to fight pathogens, including antibiotic-resistant bacteria.