Technology developed by Tennessee’s biofuels initiative is beginning to advance out of the laboratory and into the marketplace.
In less than two years the project has yielded more than a dozen invention disclosures, which precede possible patents, and one has already been licensed to market.
Normally converting biomass like switch grass into ethanol takes two steps: first, enzymes break it down into sugars, which a bacteria then ferments into alcohol. But researchers have found one microorganism that takes care of both steps.
Martin Keller at Oak Ridge National Laboratory says since then scientists have been selectively mutating it for that ability. Keller says it’s a bit like breeding a champion racehorse.
“You’re starting with one of the best race horses you can find, and then you breed them and the you pick the champions and you hope that you create a horse that’s even better. We’re doing the same with microorganisms.”
Researchers at Dartmouth College, one of the partners with Tennessee’s initiative, sold rights to that champion microbe to the project’s Mascoma Corporation.
Professor Keller says cellulosic ethanol has the potential to reduce the net amount of carbon dioxide in circulation.
While plants extract carbon dioxide from the air, when converted into biofuel and burned in a vehicle, that carbon dioxide is released back into the atmosphere. But cellulosic ethanol may be able to bend that model.
“With this, it is almost neutral – you take it out and you take it back. So now what will happen in addition is, to some of this lignocellulosic material, is not only that they incorporate all the CO2 into the biomass, they also will put some of this carbon into the soil. …
“And if you add this in addition, then there is a way that we can very significantly reduce the amount of CO2 down to this degree that some people say we could go carbon negative, meaning that overall we deposit carbon into the soil, and then we take some of the biomass back and produce our carbon fuels.”
Keller says the net result is markedly less carbon output than fossil fuel.