Auburn researcher receives National Science Foundation CAREER award to study biofuels

Five-year project to improve efficiency in biorefining process for butanol production from biomass

Maobing Tu, an assistant professor in the School of Forestry and Wildlife Sciences, has received a $401,155 National Science Foundation Faculty Early Career Development Award for his research in biofuels and bioenergy.

The CAREER program offers the NSF’s most prestigious awards, honoring junior faculty who excel in research and teaching and integrating these roles at their institutions.

Tu said the five-year project promises to improve efficiency in the biorefining process for butanol production from forest and agricultural biomass. The study is titled “Carbonyl Inhibition of Butanol Production from Biomass Hydrolysates by Clostridium acetobutylicum.”

“This will be a significant step toward making butanol production economically viable,” Tu said.

The work also will be helpful in the design and manufacturing of machines used to produce butanol, and is expected to advance understanding of the chemical processes involved in biomass processing. A successful outcome for this project will significantly promote biofuels production, which has further positive implications for national energy security and independence.

“Butanol is one of the promising advanced biofuels being pursued by industry for the next generation of alternative fuels,” Tu said. “However, cost-effective production of butanol from lignocellulosic biomass is still challenging. In particular, hydrolysate inhibition limits butanol fermentation efficiency.”

Tu said butanol has several advantages over ethanol, including a higher energy content that is closer to gasoline. Unlike ethanol, butanol can be used in cars directly, without mixing or altering the vehicle. In addition, because ethanol can absorb water, it rusts pipes, making transportation a challenge. Both biofuels can be derived from the same biomass materials, but butanol is more difficult to produce. This is due in part to sensitivity of microorganisms to toxic compounds generated in biomass pretreatment, which can either slow down or stop the fermentation process completely.

An important component of CAREER awards is the integration of teaching the next generation of scientists. Tu’s project includes plans to hire 20 undergraduate researchers from Auburn University and Tuskegee University, with special effort to recruit a diverse cohort of students.

“Dr. Tu’s research will help solve technological barriers to producing cellulose-based liquid fuels that we can use to offset fossil fuels,” said James Shepard, dean of the School of Forestry and Wildlife Sciences. “We are very pleased that the value of his work has been recognized by the National Science Foundation.”

Tu joined the Auburn faculty in 2008. He earned his doctorate from the University of British Columbia in 2007. He is the first CAREER award recipient from the School of Forestry and Wildlife Sciences.


Auburn University, press release, 2013-03-18.


Auburn University
National Science Foundation (USA)
Tuskegee University
University of British Columbia


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