June 26, 2007 1:00 PM PDT

Making ethanol out of biodiesel byproducts

Rice University researchers say that microbes can help us get more biofuel for the buck.

Microorganisms can be used to metabolize glycerol--one of the primary byproducts in converting vegetable oil or animal fat into biodiesel--into high-value products, said Ramon Gonzalez, the William Akers Assistant Professor in Chemical and Biomolecular Engineering.

Gonzalez and a group of students, for instance, have identified a process in which Escherichia coli, in an oxygen-free environment, will convert glycerol into ethanol. The strain of E. coli currently being used in the experiments isn't genetically modified or enhanced, which could further enhance yields.

The glycerol could also be converted into different types of industrial acids, which could even be more profitable than ethanol.

The research, which is attracting investors and companies interested in licensing the technology, could help take some of the risk out of the growing biofuel business. Start-ups and established companies are sinking hundreds of millions of dollars into building biodiesel refineries and ethanol plants.

Unfortunately, turning a profit isn't easy, even with subsidies that range from 50 cents to $1 a gallon. Both biodiesel and ethanol are dependent upon feedstocks such as palm oil, sugar cane, and corn, which can fluctuate wildly in price and erode margins. Corn has doubled in price, from $2 a bushel to $4 a bushel, in the U.S. in the past year and whacked the profits of ethanol producers. Increased biodiesel demand is expected to make cooking oil prices spike in the coming years.

To remain economically viable, these companies have to be able to sell their byproducts. In biodiesel, that's become tough to do because of the sudden glut in supply. Glycerin (also known as glycerol), which is sold to cosmetics companies, went for about 25 cents a pound 18 months ago, said Gonzalez. Now it sells for about 2 to 3 cents a pound--when sellers can find buyers. For every 10 pounds of biodiesel produced, refiners are left with about a pound of glycerin. (Oil in industrial processes gets measured in pounds.)

"This could help biodiesel a lot," he said. "When they design their economic models, they count on selling the glycerin."

Ethanol produced from glycerin could also be more economical than producing it out of corn, the main feedstock for ethanol in the U.S., or than cellulosic ethanol, which is made out of wood chips and waste vegetable matter. Gonzalez hopes a prototype production process for making glycerin ethanol will be in place by the end of the year, meaning it could come to market earlier than cellulosic ethanol. Mascoma will try to open a small cellulosic plant by early 2008 and New Zealand is investing in the concept. But most believe cellulosic ethanol is still at least a few years away.

During the past three years, microorganisms have begun to be more actively enlisted for industrial production. Microbes, after all, are essentially miniature chemical factories: they ingest materials, break them down with enzymes and turn out byproducts. Brewers and pharmaceutical manufacturers have exploited microorganisms for years, but now they are being drafted for other types of work. Some companies have also figured out ways to re-create microbial processes in the lab in the growing field of synthetic biology.

Cambrios Technologies has come up with a biologically inspired enzyme that can be used to add insulating layers to semiconductors. Meanwhile, companies such as LS9, Gevo and Synthetic Genomics are trying to harness microbes for energy production.

And why use E. coli, the microorganism usually associated with stomach pains? It's one of the most extensively studied microbes, and several techniques for genetic modification have already been developed with it. Gonzalez and others call it the workhorse of microbiology.

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12 comments

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It sounds like we are planting ourselves into a corner
There just simply isn't enough farmland for this biodiesel or ethanol to work. Run the numbers yourself and while your doing that keep an on the price of milk, cheese, cooking oil, beef. This rush to ethanol and biodiesel is a mistake. You should not let your tax dollars go toward another dead end situation. From what we have read only the large-scale ethanol and biodiesel plants are making money off of this latest energy carrier and that is coming at the taxpayers expense if supporting an inefficient energy capture. Corn only captures .02% of the suns energy!
Posted by Manhattan2 (329 comments )
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yeah, but it's working!
With all this talk about ethanol, we're not talking about the
screwing we're taking from the oil companies (unless you like
being deceived into believeing that record gas prices and record
CEO retirement packages are unrelated). So it's doing it's job -
keeping us distracted from the real issues!

Just like the Iraq war.

Just like immigration reform.

It's a reoccurring pattern this regime has used for years. Keep
them asking the wrong questions and you don't have to worry
about the answers.
Posted by Dalkorian (3000 comments )
Link Flag
You really need to do some research
Biodiesel and Ethanol are not meant as a total solution for our motor fuel supply...But rather as part of a combination of energy sources...When viewed in that context...Biodiesel and Ethanol are not such outlandish ideas...Your data is critically flawed...It has little relation to the reality of ethanol and biodiesel...and you seemed to miss the whole point of the story...When the next crisis comes and gas is $6 a gallon instead of three...Maybe you will see the light.
Posted by dburr13 (117 comments )
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Ethanol is here to stay.
Nobody is saying convert all gasoline to ethanol. We are just saying lets make a renewable fuel that we can make every year in our own backyard and use to complement our energy policy. Food for us in the US will not become too costly. I will start to worry when I see poor skinny people rather than all the heavy people I see now. Food has been too cheap for too long. We are wasting alot of money on policies with countries that hold us hostage with oil. It scares people on the East Coast because they dont know how to grow food and they do not want the power shifting to the midwest. By the way your wrong about enough land. There is plenty of land for ethanol and food. Dont let your tax dollars go to support useless wars and oil companies.
Posted by TomboSlicko (23 comments )
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Manhattan2
I know of several hundred acres that nothing but weeds are growing on just near here. I bet that there is land like this all over this country, so don't lie. Also remember not too long ago the Government was paying our farmes to not grow crops (corn). Sounds like you are forgetting this countrys history. Did you fail American history? Please know the facts before you speak about a subject. The price of food went up recently due to the cost of oil, not ethanol. Besides I'd rather pay farmers for thier crops instead of jehadists for thier oil. When was the last time that farmers flew a plane into any building or blew up any people.
Posted by Pahedrick (1 comment )
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I1%, 5 %, 85% they are all driving up the cost of food
And we may be polluting more to convert the plant to fuel than the energy it gives us. If it is an energy loss to create ethanol it doesn?t matter if the percent is 1, 5, or 85, or even 100. For every gallon you mix in you are creating an energy loss for the planting, farming, and distribution of the fuel. This is because photosynthesis in the corn plant is only .02% efficient in capturing the suns energy. That means you simply need too many acres of corn to make a difference. Sure it may be good for the farmer but it is a financial loss without subsidies, and an energy loss even when you take the money out of the picture. Run the numbers, compare to the efficiency of even low-grade solar cells. Direct capture of the suns energy by highly efficient solar cells will be the answer.
Ethanol is just a temporary patch or additive to oil to keep the oil flowing. When we run out of oil ethanol or other fuels from plants wont be able to cut it. We need to come up with a sustainable/renewable energy capture that will not starve out humans. Oil and Gas had millions of years to collect for our pleasure. Calculate how many acres we will need to move our cars around and you will see that we are heading down the wrong road.
Posted by Manhattan2 (329 comments )
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FUD from leftists
Brazil and Thailand convert some of their food into 85% ethanol and don't see higher food prices or use more energy to make the fuel that the fuel provides.

In fact in Missouri farmers make biodiesel very cheaply and without polluting to run farm machinery.
<a class="jive-link-external" href="http://www.moreenergy.org/" target="_newWindow">http://www.moreenergy.org/</a>

We got a lot of ideas for renewable energy that work already.

Just that you leftists with your peak oil and global warming conspiracy theories create a lot of FUD that these things either don't work or take more energy to create than they provide, which are of course false.
Posted by Orion Blastar (590 comments )
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ethanol etc.
the great lie is that ethanol etc. is the solution
to fuel and pollution problems! if you factor in the cost of production, loss of food area, pollution created, rise in cost of food,and reduced BTU derived,and government subsidies, with little overall reduction of pollutants....it does not make sense.
the real solution is 1)reduced consumption (more efficient cars), 2)greater tax on fuel with tax breaks for better milage cars, money to be spent on research. 3)a real effort by government and industry to improve the situation! I am not confident this will happen untill a severe crisis
occurs!
Posted by mtoc (58 comments )
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I agree, but how do compete with the built up power of oil ? !!!
Oil and Coal companies are taking advantage of millions of years of buildup of plant life and animal life. Currently we simply use more energy than the earth can sustain growing so we must look elsewhere for an energy replacement. Nuclear? Wind? Solar? We have done just that and will release our findings shortly. Taxing big oil and siphoning some of their billion dollar profits to fund workable solutions may be the answer. You see if we have figured out a solar solution that produces very little CO2 (for the production of the capture medium, and the distribution of that power) and the ROI is cost competitive to oil, gas, and coal wont the oil companies simply reduce their cost to maintain market dominance. If the American ingenuity comes up with a solution what is to keep other countries from continuing to use oil at reduced cost because we wont need as much of it. As the number of cars in China, and India increases the world will end up with just as much oil being used. Would minimum price stops work? Flexible taxes that suck out the effects of competition reducing demand? How could such a program work? For the 75% of the US population that are now against the War might this new energy capture solve some of the dependency on foreign oil? What happens to the world? Will we be the only ones doing our part? Pollution and GHG effects the entire planet. We should know up until recently we have been the culprit. For those that think we are leftists, think again, for those that think we are with big oil, you couldn't be further from the truth. We are scientist and visionaries that have stepped up to find workable solutions in a program we call Manhattan2. Constructive criticism is always helpful. We liken that to Platonic Dialogues and that is one of our tools at getting to the truth.
Posted by Manhattan2 (329 comments )
Link Flag
Oil lovers
You are right. They are spin doctors for oil companies. I wonder how many oil execs send their kids to Iraq to have a bomb mame or kill them. What is the cost of oil? I like our farmers and hard working midwesterners having a good future with a good product. It is only the beginning and it will get much better. We must fight the insanity of pumping huge amounts of oil until we run out. I am not against oil, I just want something in the future that looks good for the USA other than making terrorist countries wealthy.
Posted by TomboSlicko (23 comments )
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