For over 200 years, Kentucky has relied on coal mining as one of its leading industries, but now faces significant challenges as the energy economy transitions from traditional coal mining to renewable resources. The Kentucky NSF EPSCoR program is working to address this challenge, developing a cost-effective, sustainable fuel source that will produce jobs across the commonwealth, and promote the emergence of robust bioeconomy.
Coal production in eastern Kentucky has declined by 70 percent since peaking in 1990.
Eastern Kentucky Mine Layoffs, 2011-2013
Traditionally, these plant-derived feedstocks have been composed of cellulose, the most abundant natural polymer in the world, which accounts for 33% of all plant matter. Cellulose functions with another natural polymer, Lignin, to help form the rigid structure of dry land plants.
Lignin has 30% more energy content than cellulose, making it comparable to coal. Although lignin offers a higher energy density than cellulose, it is generally ignored because it is very difficult to break down. Our goal is to modify the structure and composition of lignin in plants to make it more suitable as a feedstock for biofuel production.
To optimize lignin production, we’re working to engineer specialized crops with increased lignin content. Our preliminary research indicates that a suite of chemical probes, or “triggers,” can be synthesized to effectively increase lignin development in plants. Long-term efforts to directly manipulate the lignin development process through genetic engineering techniques will become evident as our understanding of the lignification process matures.
Many of the biomass feedstocks in development around the nation are not grown in Kentucky or have not been adopted as major crops, and crop producers are unfamiliar with practices and markets associated with them. Our work in this area will provide necessary knowledge to aid in decision-making for Kentucky farmers, researchers, and manufacturers working in important nodes of the bioeconomy network.
Converting lignin into biofuel has proven difficult thus far, as its highly complex molecular structure is resistant to chemical and biological degradation. To address this challenge, our researchers are exploring new lignin deconstruction techniques, including oxidative and enzymatic processes. Importantly, our work strives to develop processes that are both economically viable and environmentally sustainable.