High schooler enters the renewable energy race

While corporations race to develop a new renewable energy source using corn plants, a young man in Aurora, Illinois may be ahead of them all. This segment on cellulosic ethanol production was produced in conjunction with The Ethanol Effect, an hour-long special from Detroit Public Television airing Fall 2016.

For information on the documentary, visit: http://www.dptv.org/programs/documentaries/ethanol-effect/.

TRANSCRIPT

CLEAN, RENEWABLE ENERGY -- IT'S ONE OF THE KEYS TO SOLVING GLOBAL-CLIMATE ISSUES.

AND THE SOLUTION MIGHT BE ONE OF HUMANITY'S OLDEST TECHNOLOGIES -- FERMENTATION.

WHILE MANY LOOK TO ETHANOL, A FUEL MADE BY FERMENTING CORN AND OTHER FEEDSTOCKS AS ONE RENEWABLE ENERGY SOURCE, CORPORATIONS ARE RACING TO DEVELOP A NEW VERSION, USING THE CORN PLANTS' UNUSED STALKS, LEAVES, AND COBS.

BUT A YOUNG MAN WORKING IN A HIGH SCHOOL CHEMISTRY LAB IN AURORA, ILLINOIS, MAY BE AHEAD OF THEM ALL.

HERE'S THE STORY.

NEVADA, IOWA -- THE HEART OF AMERICA'S CORN BELT.

DUPONT IS CELEBRATING THE OPENING OF THEIR NEWEST ACHIEVEMENT, A CELLULOSIC ETHANOL PLANT.

AS MOST OF YOU KNOW, THIS FACILITY IS UNIQUE IN THAT IT TURNS THE LEAVES, STALKS, AND COBS LEFT OVER AFTER THE CORN HARVEST INTO CELLULOSIC ETHANOL, A CLEAN, HOMEGROWN, AND TOTALLY RENEWABLE FUEL.

ETHANOL IS A FUEL MADE BY HARNESSING THE POWER OF ONE OF HUMANITY'S OLDEST TECHNOLOGIES, FERMENTATION.

MOST ETHANOL IN THE UNITED STATES IS PRODUCED BY FERMENTING THE SUGAR, OR GLUCOSE, LOCKED IN THE STARCH, FOUND IN CORN KERNELS.

THE PROCESS IS SIMILAR TO THE ONE USED TO CREATE ALCOHOLIC DRINKS.

CELLULOSIC-ETHANOL PLANTS ARE THE FUTURE OF THE ETHANOL INDUSTRY, AND THE FUTURE OF CELLULOSIC ETHANOL MAY HAVE BEEN DISCOVERED 300 MILES AWAY, IN AURORA, ILLINOIS.

CHEMISTRY TO ME IS SOMETHING THAT'S VERY RELAXING.

SO, JUST DOING, FOR EXAMPLE, THERMOCHEMICAL EQUATIONS AND UNDERSTANDING HOW MUCH IS THIS GONNA HEAT UP, OR, LIKE, UNDERSTANDING THE RATES OF REACTIONS AND IMAGINING THE DIFFERENT PROCESSES THAT WORK OUT.

TAVIS REED IS A 17-YEAR-OLD HIGH SCHOOL SENIOR AT THE ELITE ILLINOIS MATH AND SCIENCE ACADEMY.

ONE OF HIS SCHOOL RESEARCH PROJECTS UNEXPECTEDLY TOOK HIM DOWN THE SAME PATH AS DUPONT -- TO CELLULOSIC ETHANOL.

I DIDN'T REALLY, LIKE, KNOW ANYTHING ABOUT ETHANOL BEFORE I TALKED TO ONE OF MY PROFESSORS ABOUT WHAT'S A GOOD PROJECT TO DO IN BIOLOGY THAT WOULD BE SIMPLE FOR A SOPHOMORE TO DO.

AND HE SUGGESTED ETHANOL.

GROWING CORN TO PRODUCE ETHANOL IS HARD ON THE ENVIRONMENT.

IT REQUIRES MILLIONS OF ACRES OF LAND AND OCEANS OF WATER AND CHEMICAL FERTILIZERS.

CREATING ETHANOL FROM THE LEFTOVER STALKS, LEAVES, AND COBS OF THE CORN PLANT, CALLED 'STOVER,' REDUCES ETHANOL'S ENVIRONMENTAL FOOTPRINT.

BUT THIS TOUGH, FIBROUS MATERIAL IS NOT EASY TO PROCESS.

IT'S MORE DIFFICULT TO MAKE THOSE SUGARS FROM BIOMASS THAN IT IS TO MAKE THEM FROM STARCH.

YOU AND I MAKE SUGAR FROM STARCH ALL THE TIME.

WE EAT TOO MANY DOUGHNUTS OR WHATEVER, TOO MUCH STARCH, BUT WE CAN CONVERT THAT STARCH TO SUGAR VERY READILY.

NOW, CONVERTING BIOMASS TO SUGAR IS A LOT MORE DIFFICULT.

THAT'S WHY A COW HAS FOUR STOMACHS AND NEEDS TO TAKE A LITTLE BREAK ONCE IN A WHILE AND CHEW THINGS TWICE.

AND SO, THAT'S KIND OF WHAT HAPPENS HERE.

THIS IS SORT OF THE EQUIVALENT OF THAT COW, WHERE THINGS ARE PROCESSED A LITTLE BIT MORE INTENSELY.

DUPONT'S CELLULOSIC-FERMENTATION PROCESS RELIES ON AMMONIA TO BREAK THE STOVER DOWN AND SPEED UP THE FERMENTATION PROCESS.

TAVIS ALSO LOOKED TO NATURE AND FOUND AN INNOVATIVE WAY OF SOLVING THE PROBLEM.

I WAS REMINDED BY A VIDEO I HAD WATCHED IN FRESHMAN BIOLOGY, WHERE THESE TWO ORGANISMS -- A FISH AND A SHRIMP -- WORKED TOGETHER IN WHAT'S CALLED A SYMBIOTIC RELATIONSHIP TO IMPROVE THE QUALITY OF LIFE FOR BOTH OF THEM.

I WAS ABLE TO FIND TWO BACTERIA THAT COULD BOTH LIVE TOGETHER, AND ONE WAS ABLE TO BREAK DOWN CELLULOSE INTO GLUCOSE, AND THE OTHER ONE WAS ABLE TO FERMENT THAT GLUCOSE INTO ETHANOL AT A HIGH RATE.

I WAS ABLE TO WORK TO CREATE THIS PROCESS THAT REDUCED THE COST OF CREATING ETHANOL BY 85%, DECREASED LAND USAGE BY 87%, AND INCREASED PROFITS BY 891%. YOU COULD USE THE GRASS IN YOUR FRONT LAWN.

YOU COULD USE THE LEAVES THAT FALL FROM TREES.

YOU CAN USE ANYTHING THAT'S ALREADY AVAILABLE IN OUR MODERN ENVIRONMENTS AND OUR CURRENT FARMS.

THE CONSTRUCTION OF A CELLULOSIC-ETHANOL PLANT, LIKE DUPONT'S, IS DRIVEN BY THE QUEST FOR A SOURCE OF CLEAN, RENEWABLE ENERGY.

WE'RE AT HEART A SCIENCE COMPANY, AND THIS IS AN APPLICATION OF SCIENCE.

THIS IS ANOTHER OPPORTUNITY TO TAKE OUR SCIENCE AND APPLY IT TO THE WORLD'S PRESSING PROBLEMS -- THE NEED TO FEED PEOPLE, THE NEED TO PROVIDE PEOPLE WITH MORE ENERGY THAT'S SUSTAINABLE, AND TO PROTECT THEM.

YOU CAN START TO SEE CLIMATE CHANGE HAPPENING A LOT MORE.

IT'S A LOT MORE VIVID NOW WHEN YOU SEE THE POLAR ICE CAPS MELTING OR OTHER PROBLEMS OF THE ENVIRONMENT, LIKE EXTREME WEATHER.

TO KNOW THAT I DIDN'T DO ANYTHING TO STOP THAT, I'D HAVE TO LIVE WITH THAT.

THE CONSTRUCTION OF DUPONT'S CELLULOSIC-ETHANOL PLANT TOOK SEVERAL YEARS AND COST $225 MILLION.

TAVIS DOESN'T HAVE A FRACTION OF THAT BUDGET, BUT HIS RESEARCH IS ALREADY SHOWING RESULTS.

I ENTERED MY PROJECT INTO THE COMPETITION CALLED 'AFRO CULTURAL, TECHNOLOGICAL, SCIENTIFIC OLYMPICS OF THE MIND,' OR 'ACT-SO' FOR SHORT.

SO, THAT'S A LOCAL AND A NATIONAL COMPETITION.

I WON GOLD LOCALLY FOR MY WORK MY JUNIOR YEAR, AND THEN NATIONALLY I COMPETED JUST THIS PAST SUMMER AND WON THE NATIONAL GOLD MEDAL FOR MY RESEARCH.

TAVIS' CELLULOSIC-ETHANOL PROCESS IS STILL EXPERIMENTAL, BUT IT MAY SOON BE SOMETHING THAT'S HAPPENING ON A HUGE SCALE.

I DO HAVE MY PROVISIONAL PATENT, AND I'M WORKING AT GETTING MY FULL PATENT.

I DON'T HAVE A WHOLE BUNCH OF FUNDING OR A WHOLE BUNCH OF LAB SPACE.

BUT RIGHT NOW I'M TRYING TO STICK TO THINGS THAT I KNOW I CAN SOLVE SO I'M NOT JUST SITTING HERE IN THE LAB, MAKING SMALL PROGRESS ON A BIGGER SUBJECT BUT MAKING BIG PROGRESS IN A SMALLER SUBJECT.

AND THAT'S WHAT EXCITES ME.

THAT'S WHY I TAKE CLEAN ENERGY AS MY FIELD OF RESEARCH, BECAUSE I REALLY WANT TO MAKE SURE THAT WHEN I'M DONE, MY PROCESS HAS HELPED THE EARTH.

IT DIDN'T HARM THE EARTH.