During the peak of the coronavirus pandemic, it became clear to the State of Israel that “there is nothing to do but rely on ourselves,” according to Health Ministry deputy director-general Itamar Grotto.
Nonetheless, while Israel made factories to manufacture N95 protective masks and learned to fashion some of its own ventilators, the country has continued to purchase from abroad all its ethanol alcohol – a key ingredient in hand sanitizers and other disinfectant products. Increasing global demand raises concerns regarding the availability of hand sanitizers.
But Prof. Hadas Mamane from the Tel Aviv University School of Mechanical Engineering and a team of supporting scientists think they can change Israel’s model. In a world first, they have developed an Israeli, low-cost, decentralized, nonpolluting means of producing ethanol – and thereby an alcohol-based hand sanitizer – from plant-based waste, such as municipal and agricultural trim, straw and residual paper fibers.
A patent for the process has been registered by TAU in the United States.
“Our successful ethanol production from various waste types, including municipal and agricultural trim, straw, paper waste, paper sludge, etc. – using a novel, simple and cheap process that hardly causes any environmental damage, does not require the use of any hazardous materials and can be implemented in a decentralized manner on a small scale, as well as part of large-scale fermentation and distillation processes – is a genuine breakthrough,” Mamane said.
In most parts of the world, ethanol is generated from corn and sugarcane through a process that is environmentally polluting and requires the use of large plots of land, excess water and pest control agents, she explained.
Mamane’s system is based on plant and paper waste, using a novel lignin degradation process. Lignin is what gives plants their rigidity, she told The Jerusalem Post. Until now, it was understood that lignin had to be completely degraded to generate ethanol, a process that is both expensive and harmful to the environment.
Her team was able to show that this is not necessary. By using their novel process, ethanol production costs could be significantly cut back, while at the same time decreasing the use of edible plant sources, helping protect the environment and reducing the use of various pollutants and greenhouse-gas emissions.
“This research has so much potential because approximately 620,000 tons of plant and similar waste and 35,000 tons of paper waste, which have no use and whose management requires resources, are produced annually in Israel alone,” Mamane said.
“Salvaging this waste by using it to produce ethanol will cut waste-management expenses, increase the efficiency of and decentralize ethanol production, reduce resource exploitation of edible plants and could reduce fuel usage and air pollution caused by the burning of agricultural production that is frequent around the globe.”
The group is now preparing to pilot the process at a small plant developed alongside the Naftali Botanic Garden at TAU, whose plant waste the team is planning to use. They have submitted a proposal to the Science and Technology Ministry and are in the design and purchasing stage, Mamane said.