Unlocking the fuel potential of sugar cane

We're working with researchers in Europe and Brazil to find ways to convert woody plant material, including residues from sugar cane, into environmentally-friendly biofuel.

Plantation of sugar cane in Brazil (© istock.com/lubueno)

The SUNLIBB project studied processes for breaking down the cell walls of hard-to-digest biomass – known as lignocellulosic biomass - into constituent sugars. The sugars are then fermented to produce bioethanol, a sustainable alternative to fossil fuels such as petrol and diesel.

The project focused on three closely-related crops; maize, Miscanthus (Elephant Grass) - and sugar cane.

Fuel from these woody sources is known as ‘second generation’ biofuel, because it is made from feedstocks that are not part of the human food chain.

Professor Simon McQueen-Mason, Director of the University’s Centre for Novel Agricultural Products (CNAP) said: “The inedible cell wall tissues of plants are hard to break down and complicated to convert into fuels and chemicals. However, they are composed of approximately 75 per cent sugars and if these could be released, there are potentially great returns to be had.

Fossil fuels

“One of the aims of the SUNLIBB project was to find a cost effective and energy efficient way to convert biomass into liquid biofuels, as a sustainable, low carbon alternative to fossil fuels.”

As one of the world’s largest sugar producers, Brazil produces around 600 million tons of sugar cane each year. Only 10 to15 per cent of this crop consists of easily-extractable sugar with the remaining lignocellulosic biomass, known as bagasse, offering a plentiful supply of raw material for sustainable, second generation biofuel.

Researchers studied the genes that affect the composition of the cell walls in the target plants, so that in the future, breeders might be able to tailor-make plants with more digestible biomass.

Economic potential

They also explored methods of breaking down biomass including trials of different biomass pre-treatments to discover the most efficient process for each crop. Pilot scale fermentations of sugars from maize and Miscanthus gave the research team a better understanding of the economic potential of the processes.

The project also looked at ways to develop by-products from the plant material – these include waxes which have shown promise as anti-foaming agents in washing machines.

SUNLIBB – Sustainable Liquid Biofuels from Biomass Biorefining - was funded by the European Union. It involved researchers from our Green Chemistry Centre of Excellence and the Centre for Novel Agricultural Products working with other UK and European universities, in collaboration with a research consortium in Brazil.

The four-year project is now complete, but collaborations with Brazilian experts will continue, with a view to extending the work in the future.

Simon McQueen-Mason said: “SUNLIBB used the combined resources of an international research team to address some of the gaps in the technical knowledge around using woody crops as a source of biofuels. It also fostered closer collaboration between the project’s European and Brazilian partners. These are constructive relationships that can only help to advance the research underway in the increasingly important area of biofuel development.” 

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If these (sugars) could be released, there are potentially great returns to be had.”

Professor Simon McQueen-Mason
Centre for Novel Agricultural Products (CNAP)
Featured researcher
Professor Simon McQueen-Mason

Professor Simon McQueen-Mason

CNAP Director and Chair in Materials Biology

His research expertise is in genetically modified crops, industrial products from plants, mussel adhesive proteins and plant cell walls.

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