Sustainable Biofuels and Chemicals from Waste

Lead Research Organisation: University of York
Department Name: Biology


Burning fossil fuels is a major source of greenhouse gas emissions and replacing these with truly sustainable biofuels in which the released carbon is balanced by photosynthetic fixation into new biomass is an important way to reduce emissions. Producing biofuels from crops is unsustainable in terms of global food security and instead we need to focus on waste sources of biomass. The UK is a net importer of food and other biomass such as paper and wood, and every year more than 50 Mt of biological material in the form of municipal and commercial waste is sent to landfill at high cost to the environment and economy. This biological fraction of solid waste (BioSW) represents the biggest untapped source of biomass available in the UK that could be used for biofuel and biochemical production (1). With landfill taxes in excess of £100/t, solid waste comes with an equivalent gate fee, which translates to a BioSW feedstock cost in the region of minus £40/t. This compares very favourably with alternative biomass sources such as cereal straw, of which only 5-10 Mt are available in the UK and which is currently priced at around £60/t).

The studentship project involves a close collaboration between an innovative engineering company, Wilson Steam Engineering, and the McQueen-Mason research group in the Centre for Novel Agricultural Products at York. Wilson Steam has developed waste autoclave technology that allows unsorted MSW to be sterilised and separated into recyclable metals, glass and plastics leaving a solid (fibre) component that has a high (40% of dry matter) polysaccharide (mostly cellulose) content that currently has little use. The McQueen-Mason group has a strong track record in underpinning research for the development of sustainable biofuels from woody biomass (2-4). Preliminary work has shown the feasibility of cleaning the autoclave fibre and using it as a potential substrate for hydrolysis and fermentation to establish the basis of a sustainable renewable biofuel that could displace petroleum derived fuels. However, a number of technical challenges need to be tackled before fuels produced in this way become a reality.


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Studentship Projects

Project Reference Relationship Related To Start End Student Name
BB/M014916/1 01/10/2015 30/09/2019
1642942 Studentship BB/M014916/1 01/10/2015 30/09/2019 Aritha Dornau
Description This project explored the potential of using the organic fraction of municipal solid waste (OMSW) to produce renewable fuels and chemicals through microbial fermentation.
A comprehensive compositional analysis of the OMSW was carried out which showed that the material contained 42% fermentable sugars, but also toxic inhibitors and a wide range of potentially toxic metals. Due to the complexity of this material, we chose to look for a robust and efficient microorganism by trialling eight microorganisms of biotechnological interest for the ability to grow and produce products on sugars from OMSW.
Three species were identified that robustly and efficiently fermented the OMSW, this included the yeast Saccharomyces cerevisiae and the bacterium Zymomonas mobilis which produced high levels of ethanol, as well as the bacterium Rhodococcus opacus, which produced high levels of triacylglycerol, a biodiesel precursor.
Exploitation Route The species identified through this study are promising candidates for developing an industrial bioprocess for organic municipal solid waste and also provide a foundation for future studies aiming to produce products from OMSW.
Sectors Chemicals,Energy,Environment,Manufacturing, including Industrial Biotechology

Description Biology Research Committee Equipment Fund
Amount £9,937 (GBP)
Organisation University of York 
Sector Academic/University
Country United Kingdom
Start 11/2017 
End 07/2018
Description PhD Facilities Award
Amount £5,000 (GBP)
Organisation University of York 
Sector Academic/University
Country United Kingdom
Start 08/2017 
End 02/2018
Description Talk: Rubbish to resource: Producing renewable fuels and chemicals from waste 
Form Of Engagement Activity A talk or presentation
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach Local
Primary Audience Postgraduate students
Results and Impact In association with the University of York's annual sustainability awareness week ('One Planet Week'), I was invited to present a talk at a symposium organised around sustainable materials. The symposium was aimed at the exploration of different sustainable materials in the point of views of researchers and practitioners from across the University. I gave a 20 minute presentation that focused on my research on turning municipal solid waste into biofuels and chemicals. There were a number of questions afterwards, particularly from students who were interested in learning more about the potential of producing more sustainable products from waste biomass.
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2019