Heat-Seeking Bacteria Could Hold Key to Better Cellulosic Ethanol


TMO Renewables, a British company specializing in the production of cellulosic ethanol, is claiming an early victory over its U.S. competitors in the race to create the best replacement for gasoline in cars. "We believe what we've found is not far from the silver bullet, and our demonstration plant will be about showing that. We have the organism people have dreamt of -- it eats nearly anything and it makes ethanol really quickly," said Hamish Curran, the company's CEO, showing off TMO's secret weapon — several bubbling vats of bacteria — in its group laboratories during a recent visit by reporters.

After about two years' worth of painstaking research and genetic manipulation, company scientists discovered and refined the organism they are using to drive the production of their cellulosic ethanol — a heat-seeking rod-shaped bacterium of the geobacillus family. TM242, as they've dubbed it, is a thermophile — a species that thrives in high temperature conditions — that has a high metabolic rate. It is also 300 times more effective at making ethanol than its wild strain counterpart.

"The wild-type came from a compost heap, and the reason we went looking there was because we wanted an organism that could eat multiple feedstocks. The ones that enter the fray and kill all others as the temperature rises are the thermophiles, like our beasty. We see the feedstocks being regional. In the UK it would be wheat straw -- look in the fields, there are straw bales just lying there; in Scandinavia it would be woodchips; in the U.S. corn belt it would be the five foot six of plant that isn't cob," said Curran

Company officials estimate that their demonstration plant will be able to produce about 1 million liters of ethanol a year once it is completed in early 2008. TMO first plans on focusing its efforts on the U.S. market, which already has a mature market in which to sell ethanol, by pushing existing producers to incorporate its technology in their own plants — helping them boost their production figures.

But that's not all: Curran's company is already hard at work refining and experimenting with a species of bacteria that was discovered on the side of a volcano more than a decade ago.
"We have an interesting beasty that was found on the side of a volcano in Montserrat just before it exploded. That one eats vegetable oil, drinks methanol and shits biodiesel."

"Shits" biodiesel? Sign us up!

Via ::Reuters: Hot compost bugs promise greener car fuel (news website)

See also: ::You Got Bacteria in My Gas: Engineering Microbes to Make Hydrocarbons, ::Bacteria: Now More Environmentally Friendly than Ever

Tags: Bacteria | Ethanol