NCERC at SIUE Executive Director John Caupert.The NCERC at Southern Illinois University Edwardsville is leading the way in converting municipal solid waste (MSW) to biofuel through two proposals recently submitted for funding.

The NCERC has received funding from a grant proposal that was submitted to SIUE’s Transitional and Exploratory Projects (STEP) grant program by Jie Dong, PhD, NCERC’s fermentation scientist and assistant professor in the SIUE Department of Chemistry. The project’s goal is centered on the conversion of MSW, waste that comes from both residential and commercial sources, to biofuel. The biofuel created through this method is ethanol, which is currently used across the country as an octane-boosting fuel additive in gasoline.

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Another proposal submitted by NCERC to the United States Department of Energy (DOE) is a collaboration among NCERC and industry-leading organizations from across the country, including a government lab, a waste management company from California, an international analytical equipment manufacturer, and a technology company leading in artificial intelligence, machine learning and sensing technologies.

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If funded, this two-year project will establish specifications needed for characterizing MSW for biofuel conversion. It will also contribute to creating a more robust conversion method for turning MSW into biofuel or bioproducts. By creating a scalable model that will use waste as a feedstock for fuel, NCERC and its partners are turning trash into treasure and contributing to a solution that diverts waste from the landfill to a process that will provide added value.

“NCERC is a leader in creating a machine learning model that will allow us to understand the chemical composition of a pile of trash as it’s being collected by the waste management company,” says Dr. Yan Zhang, NCERC’s director of research. “Understanding this information is key, as it will allow those of us in the bioprocessing industries to receive this material and convert it to value-added products. By combining leaders from industry, academia and government laboratories, we will have a breakthrough in the field of converting waste to energy.”

The ethanol fuel that will be the result of a successful conversion is clean-burning and can be used in light duty vehicles on the road today. In fact, all cars 2001 and newer are approved by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) to run on E15, fuel that contains 15% ethanol. There are also thousands of flexible fuel vehicles (FFVs) on the road that can run on fuel that contains as much as 85% ethanol, also known as E85 or Flex Fuel.

“While ethanol from corn is a significant step in the right direction for decarbonizing the transportation sector, this unique project tackles additional environmental issues,” NCERC Executive Director John Caupert said. “I’m extremely proud of the proposal the NCERC team has put together, as well as the team we’ve built through our coalition of impressive partners.”

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