Atsushi FUKUOKA, Professor and Director, Catalysis Research Center
Production of bioethanol from waste left after sugarcane juice extraction
Based on the view that resource-poor Japan’s existing resources should be used more effectively, Professor and Catalysis Research Center Director Atsushi Fukuoka succeeded in saccharifying biomass with high efficiency using readily available activated charcoal as a catalyst. The term biomass refers to renewable, biologically derived organic materials other than fossil resources, but plant biomass (e.g., Chinese silver grass, rice straw) was used in his experiment. As a result of trial and error with different materials, Prof. Fukuoka managed to efficiently produce glucose and xylitol from sugarcane bagasse (waste left after juice extraction). Glucose is a raw material used in the production of bioethanol and biodegradable plastics, and xylitol is effective in preventing cavities. As opposed to the acid catalysts used in conventional research on biomass degradation, Prof. Fukuoka succeeded in using alkaline-treated activated carbon ― a method that previously seemed unfeasible.
Efforts to produce a catalyst superior to enzymes
Catalysts and natural enzymes facilitate chemical reactions. However, the latter have the drawbacks of high expense and the need for accurate temperature and pH settings. With catalysts, not all expected reactions take place; only 90% or so materialize. However, as these substances are man-made, they can be used under various conditions such as environments with heating and acid conditions. They are also affordable and can be used repeatedly. Based on these bene¬fits, Prof. Fukuoka seeks to produce a catalyst superior to enzymes and is enthusiastic about trying new approaches. Catalysts make a substantive yet unrecognized contribution to chemistry, but are particularly interesting to researchers because a small change to a catalyst dramatically alters chemical reactions, which can in turn benefit society. A student from Prof. Fukuoka’s laboratory devotes himself to research in the field, saying, “I realized at an early stage that I’m not great at organic chemistry, but I may be able to apply my efforts to solve global environmental issues in the world of catalysts, where organic chemistry, inorganic chemistry and physical chemistry come together.”
The importance of novelty for research
As research must be original in order to be significant, Prof. Fukuoka always asks his students what is new in their work. He says individuals who are well suited to research can talk about science theoretically and consider abstract concepts as concrete. For example, students with an aptitude for research understand the connection between environmental issues and charging for plastic bags at supermarkets. They do not believe that shale gas and methane hydrate are silver-bullet solutions to fuel shortages simply because stocks of them will last as long as 100 years. Although these energy resources are expected to replace petroleum, they cannot be used as raw materials for plastics because chemical transformation does not occur readily with them other than via combustion. Individuals who can consider both their own generation and future generations are needed as researchers.