Growing cereal grains as an energy source has been criticized for impinging on food production resources. In a plot twist, Shijie Liu, a professor of paper and bioprocess engineering at the SUNY College of Environmental Science and Forestry, is looking at using wood, an energy crop, as the source of a food additive.
Biorefinery processes convert biomass into energy and chemicals. Ethanol is made by a late step in processing, when six sugars – including glucose, mannose and xylose — present in wood are fermented.
While exploring ways to separate the different sugars to make the fermentation more efficient, Lui realized that sugars themselves might be marketable end products. He took a closer look at the five-carbon sugar xylose, which is used to make the sweetener xylitol.
Liu has a $250,000 grant from the New York State Energy Research and Development Authority to develop a process to recover xylose from wood.
The process begins by extracting woody biomass such as sugar maple wood and willow, although Liu plans to try other sources, such as mixed hardwoods and agricultural residues such as corn stalks. Next, the material gets digested, separated, hydrolyzed to capture the sugars.
The end result is a natural, low-calorie sweetener!
As Liu points out, the global demand for food—and efficiencies in the processes to produce the foods—is growing. This has put a spotlight on energy conservation, as well, since natural resources are most commonly used to produce energy.
SUNY College of Environmental Science and Forestry is a staple of environmental research and impact. To explore Liu’s groundbreaking biorefinery process and other high-impact research, visit www.ESF.edu.