Promising biofuels research at a Wisconsin biotech company and University of Wisconsin-Stevens Point is getting a boost from a $224,292 National Science Foundation grant.

C5.6 Technologies of Middleton, Wis., and the Wisconsin Institute for Sustainable Technology (WIST) at UW-Stevens Point were awarded the grant to continue work on developing bacteria that will ferment sugar into isoprene. This high-energy molecule can be used to make fuel for jets and other uses.

Isoprene is mainly produced from petroleum sources. Producing it from sugar would help meet U.S. goals for renewable energy production and reduction of greenhouse gas emissions.

Besides its use in fuel, isoprene is also a valuable industrial chemical, used in making latex, rubber, plastics and pharmaceuticals, said Eric Singsaas, WIST director of research. “Renewably sourced isoprene can play a central role in the future bio-economy.”

WIST has patented a process to separate biomass, including waste from pulp and paper mills, into three components: cellulose, hemicellulose and lignin. The cellulose then can be converted to sugar.

Most biofuels now are made from sugars derived from grains such as corn. Cellulose is more plentiful – it’s a basic structural component of plants. Paving the way for biofuel production from abundant available plant fiber would avoid the food-versus-fuel tradeoff.

The WIST patent protects the production of isoprene from cellulose in a biorefinery. Ongoing research aims to optimize the production process and move it toward commercial viability.

WIST researchers’ goal is to help a paper or pulp mill develop a biorefinery to produce isoprene and other value-added chemicals from its waste stream. That would give an economic boost to Wisconsin’s paper industry and add jobs, Singsaas said.

The isoprene research is being funded by the National Science Foundation through its Small Business Technology Transfer Program. The program promotes innovation in the private sector by linking businesses with university researchers. Work on the project will take place at C5.6 and UW-Stevens Point laboratories.

WIST focuses on interdisciplinary, collaborative work to create sustainable solutions for business and industry. C5.6 Technologies, Inc., creates bio-based solutions to efficiently convert biomass into five- and six-carbon sugars, then converts sugars to fuel. The two partner on research grant projects.

biology professor with lab technician working with technology

Eric Singsaas, UW-Stevens Point associate professor of biology and WIST director of research, left, works in the WIST lab with technician Justin Hall, a 2011 graduate of UW-Stevens Point.