member in action


Fuel through Fermentation

Michael Martin, USA (Global Environments Summer Academy 2011 participant

The year after GESA 2011 was a whirlwind of activity for me.  Before returning to the United States I travelled around Europe, including a wonderful visit to fellow GESA participant, Anna Varga, in her hometown of Budapest!  When I returned to the U.S. I began working as a research technician in a bioenergy laboratory and this fall I started a Master’s program in biological and environmental engineering, where I’ll be continuing my research in the same lab and taking courses to better understand sustainable energy.

My research involves “syngas fermentation,” which is a process that uses the anaerobic bacteria Clostridium ljungdahlii as biocatalysts to convert syngas (a mixture of carbon monoxide, carbon dioxide, and hydrogen) into liquid fuels like ethanol and butanol.  The advantage of syngas fermentation as a renewable fuel is the flexibility of sources for syngas.  Syngas is an off-gas of many industrial processes—steel milling and petroleum refining for example—and it can also be produced through pyrolysis, the slow burning of organic matter (think agricultural waste, etc.) in the absence of oxygen.  Pyrolysis also produces biochar, which can be used to amend soil.  I am working to optimize a bioreactor system, test different bacterial strains, and adjust parameters to reach the highest possible ethanol production.

My group’s research is part of a larger project named Village-Scale Pyrolysis for Liquid Biofuels.  The purpose of the project is to work with rural communities in Kenya to provide a new source of household income, by creating sustainable enterprises. It looks toward a future where sustainable fuel options will improve transportation and access to markets, and sustainable fertilizer in the form of biochar will improve agricultural yields and replace synthetic fertilizers.  The project includes environmental science, engineering, and social science components with team members in the U.S. and Kenya holding regular meetings to discuss research advances, community-level economics, demand for biofuels, biomass availability, the current transportation situation, and the location for eventually constructing a pyrolysis kiln and fermentation bioreactor in the target communities.  I am always amazed at these meetings how many considerations there are to deliberate upon!

One of the most thought-provoking articles assigned during GESA was an ethnography by Tania Li of the Nature Conservancy’s efforts working with indigenous people in Indonesia, and how TNC struggled to find the right approach. They finally realized that a techno-scientific management style failed if it was not combined with community-based resource management and solid communication.  Although I am removed from the rural communities whom we intend to operate the syngas fermentation system, I keep in mind the lessons from that reading.  I learned a lot from GESA speakers and the readings about the complexity of management and the unintended consequences that result from a failure to communicate and cooperate with all stakeholders.  I also became more aware of the different perspectives that arise from hard sciences versus social sciences, and the areas of commonality, through conversations and debates with fellow participants. GESA will make me a more aware and intricate thinker and actor in my career.  In a subject like renewable energy, which will involve many actors and many changes, requiring significant land and resources, the lessons from GESA will remain indispensable.

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