Researchers at Harvard University Medical School working with SunEthanol will try to develop new, genetically modified strains of the ‚ÄòQ’ microbe, an anaerobic bacterium found in soil that holds out the promise of accelerating the commercialization of second-generation biofuels made from woody biomass and the remnants of food crops, such as switchgrass, corn stover, wheat straw, sugar cane bagasse and wood pulp, as well as other organic material, such as recycled newspapers and wood chips.
SunEthanol has developed a more efficient Complete Cellulose Conversion industrial process that harnesses the ‚ÄòQ’ microbe’s ability to very efficiently break down sugars found in plant material and convert them into ethanol, thereby significantly reducing the costs of producing a commercial fuel from biomass.
By employing microbes, in theory, as much as 96% of energy in plant sugars can be converted to ethanol. Actual yields are slightly lower but still the most efficient yet found, according to Dartmouth College professor of engineering and biology Lee Lynd.
*Photos courtesy: Sun Ethanol
Searching for an Ethanol Producing ‚ÄòSuperbug’
The goal of the research team will be to produce new genetically modified strains of the ‚ÄòQ’ microbe, discovered by Umass, Amherst microbiology professor and SunEthanol co-founder Susan Leschine.
Working through Harvard’s Office of Technology Development, the research will take place in th lab of George Church, a Harvard Medical School professor of genetics and director of the Center for Computational Genetics, where researchers will apply their expertise in DNA synthesis and genome engineering to develop modified strains of the ‚ÄòQ’ microbe that may boost the bacterium’s natural ability to ferment ethanol from plant sugars.
The microbes produced will be tested by SunEthanol scientists. SunEthanol will have an option to license any of the strains created via the partnership.
Backed by investors including South Dakota-based ethanol producer VeraSun Energy and with additional capital supplied by the U.S. Dept. of Energy’s biofuels development research program, SunEthanol is working with ethanol industry partners to build a pilot plant that is expected to be in operation in 2009.
VeraSun, which produces and markets VE85 – its branded 85% ethanol, 15% gasoline fuel blend – for use in Flexible Fuel Vehicles through some 150 retail outlets in 15 states and Washington D.C. notes on its web site that transportation accounts for 65% of the total costs of the U.S.’ largest emergency food aid program.
The company has 11 ethanol refineries in production with production capacity totaling more than 1 billion gallons per year. It’s in the process of constructing another six, which, once completed, will raise the total to approximately 1.75 billion gallons.
It recently began construction to extract oil from dried distillers grains, a co-product of the ethanol process, for use in biodiesel production at its plant in Aurora, Colorado.
There are around 100 ethanol plants up and running in the U.S. and another 50-75 under construction, according to SunEthanol. “It may take 1,000-1,500 plants at different levels of production with different bio-mass feedstock sources to meet our country’s transportation fuel needs,” the company estimates.