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Undergraduate Research: Streamlining Biofuel Fermentation Processes

By Rebecca Nagy

Erin Cooper likes making things more efficient. Easier. Faster. Better.

That’s why her REEP research project is perfect for her interests and skillset. She’s working with advisor Dr. Mari Chinn to streamline ethanol fermentation using biomass sorghum as a starting material.

The senior majoring in biological engineering with a concentration in bioprocessing was selected as the 2019 REEP scholar. Her project focuses on combining two processing steps used in current ethanol production: hydrolysis and fermentation. Successful consolidation of these operations can simplify inputs, reduce waste, and lower overall costs.

“The ultimate goal is to define conversion processes suitable for biomass sorghum as the feedstock so limited corn yielding regions like the southeast can participate in renewable energy production efforts,” explains Cooper.

And why sorghum? It’s a high dry matter yielding an annual crop with significant utility because of its high soluble sugars and cellulosic content.

“I’m most excited about learning how you can make fermentation more efficient,” adds Cooper, who wants to eventually own and operate a brewery where fermentation knowledge will be vital.
“I want to take fermentation and apply it to real-world research that could have an impact in streamlining and efficiency,” she explains.

In her REEP project, Cooper will also seek to better understand how the storage of biomass sorghum affects the conversion to ethanol. Findings could impact how conversion parameters are defined for producing ethanol from sorghum.

“My project is small scale but it could have implications when thinking about designing processes for biofuels to reduce costs,” explains Cooper.

After a manufacturing internship at Merck over the summer, Cooper wants to take on this research to learn more about the research process and open the door for more opportunities.

“Research is fun for me. It’ll also help me to develop my relationship with the department, the faculty and Dr. Chinn.”