August 14, 2007 2:15 PM PDT

Start-up to produce cheaper ethanol with microbe

Start-up to produce cheaper ethanol with microbe
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SunEthanol wants to streamline ethanol production from plant cellulose, using bacteria to do the heavy lifting.

The company, spun off from the University of Massachusetts, on Tuesday announced that it has raised a first round of funding for an undisclosed amount and intends to raise a second round later this year. Investors are ethanol producer VeraSun Energy, Battery Ventures, Long River Ventures and AST Capital.

The investment will be used to optimize a naturally occurring microbe, which the company calls the Q Microbe, to make ethanol, a car fuel. The microbe was discovered by Susan Leschine, University of Massachusetts professor of microbiology and company adviser, in the soil of New England.

The microbe can degrade the cellulose--essentially the fiber in green plants--and convert it to sugar, which is fermented into ethanol, explained company CEO Jef Sharp.

Making ethanol from plant cellulose, called cellulosic ethanol, is considered less polluting than making ethanol from grains such as corn. But the technology to produce cellulosic ethanol has not been used on a commercial scale, and the facilities are typically a lot more expensive to build than corn ethanol plants.

Using the Q Microbe can reduce the number of steps needed to break down plant matter into ethanol, Sharp said. Other cellulosic ethanol processes require multiple steps and use enyzmes to break down the cellulose in plants.

"It's very unusual for a microbe to have ethanol as its primary byproduct. Once we knock out some of the other things it makes, its performance will increase," Sharp said.

The Q Microbe works with a wide range of plant matter, or biomass, including grasses, wood pulp, and different forms of agricultural residue like corn husks.

The company also intends to engineer a process based on the Q Microbe. It hopes to have a demonstration plant in 2009, Sharp said.

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3 comments

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Dead end
Can't grow enough stuff, not enough land. Do the math.
Posted by billmosby (536 comments )
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You're thinking about corn, not celluose.
We couldn't grow enough corn for corn based ethanol to power America and eliminate our reliance on foreign oil, no. As it stands corn can only reduce our need of crude from outside the country by around 30%. The problem is corn can only yield one harvest per plant, and it takes a lot of time and money to get a stalk of corn to the point of being harvested.

Cellulose, which is what this microbe turns into ethanol, is everywhere. Even an "empty" field full of weeds can be mowed and turned into ethanol with this process. Even something as simple as the grass clippings we send to the dump or put into a compost pile can be used.

And the best thing is - grass keeps growing back. Unlike corn which only yields one harvest per the life of the plant, grasses or most any hearty weed can and will grow back after being trimmed, ready to be trimmed again.

Imagine the amount of fuel which could be made simply by using the fallen tree branches and trimmings a municipality picks up after a storm, or simply trimming the grass next to roads. Furthermore, imagine if the municipality sold the "refuse" of these operations to a company such as this one, lowering the taxes we all have to pay.
Posted by thesmj (2 comments )
Link Flag
Not enough Land
I have a system that will grow 100 tons of
of bio mass per day, per ten acres.
My question is, How much land do you need?
Posted by Bio_Man (1 comment )
Link Flag
 

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