Upstate News

October 11, 2007
Darryl Geddes 315 464-4828

CNY biotech center wins $400,000 grant to turn cheese whey into ethanol

SYRACUSE, N.Y. — How about running your car on cream cheese or small curd cottage cheese?

The Central New York Biotechnology Research Corp. (CNYBRC) in Syracuse has been awarded a $400,000 grant from the New York State Energy Research and Development Authority to design, build and test a special energy-efficient bioreactor to produce ethanol from cheese whey, the lactose-rich byproduct that comes from cheese manufacturing.

Fermenting lactose from cheese whey into ethanol is practiced in many parts of the world, but has been slow to catch on in the United States. For example, in New Zealand, a large milk and cheese producer, 50 percent of the country’s supply of ethanol comes from the fermentation of cheese whey lactose.

The research project is a joint venture with the CNYBRC and partners SUNY Upstate Medical University, the State College of Environmental Science and Forestry, the Hilliard Corp. in Elmira and Corning Inc. The cheese whey will be obtained from a Kraft Foods manufacturing facility in Lowville.

In the proposed project, Corning will provide microporous ceramic modules, an integral part of the bioreactor, and the Hilliard Corp. will fabricate the module housing and develop the necessary piping and instrumentation. Researchers from the CNYBRC and SUNY ESF will then evaluate the performance of the system as an immobilized cell flow-through bioreactor to produce ethanol from cheese whey. Part of the NYSERDA funding will allow the CNYBRC to hire at least two full-time scientists.

John Fieschko, Ph.D., executive director of the CNYBRC, said developing a more efficient reactor for this type of fermentation is essential to keep the production of biofuels economical. “Most bioreactors used for the fermentation process are large, expensive and energy intensive,” he said. “The challenge here will be to design a less complicated, more energy-efficient, compact bioreactor that can be used to ferment the lactose in cheese whey to ethanol at a lower cost.”

Fieschko said the project could have significant economic implications for dairy farmers because converting dairy wastes into fuel-grade ethanol will improve profit margins of cheese manufactures that can be passed through to dairies and ultimately farmers. Low milk prices and high feed and fuel costs have brought tough economic times to New York’s farmers, leading to the creation of various state farm relief programs include the Dairy Assistance Program. New York has nearly 6,000 dairy farms and 640,000 dairy cows.

Not only could the project benefit dairy farming, the creation of a more efficient technology for biofuel production could stimulate product demand and create manufacturing jobs. “We believe our proposed bioreactor design will be more affordable and efficient and appeal greatly to the biofuels industry to produce ethanol not only from cheese whey, but corn or cellulosic materials,” Fieschko said.

In addition to the $400,000 NYSERDA grant, partners with the CNYBRC had to match the grant dollar for dollar, meaning the total cost of the project to $800,000. Work on the yearlong project is expected to begin in early 2008.

Earlier this year, NYSERDA awarded the CNYBRC a $250,000 grant to test a novel, energy-efficient filtration system that can be used in a variety of processes, including fermenting ethanol.

“Bringing industry and academia together to further advances in biotechnology that benefit the state is precisely the mission of CNYBRC,” Fieschko said.

The Central New York Biotechnology Research Center is a public/private partnership involving SUNY-ESF, SUNY Upstate Medical University, the Metropolitan Development Association of Syracuse and Central New York, the Syracuse VA Medical Center and various corporations and industry associations. Seed funding for the CNYBRC was provided by Bristol-Myers Squibb Corp.

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