Genetically Engineered E.Coli Process to Generate Ethanol from Wood/Ag Waste by 2006.

Half the automotive fuel in the United States could be replaced with ethanol from renewable agricultural and forest waste, says a University of Florida researcher who has developed a biotechnology "bug" that converts biomass such as sugarcane residues, rice hulls, forestry and wood wastes and other organic materials into ethanol
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Lonnie Ingram, a professor of microbiology with UF's Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences has genetically engineered a stratin of E.Coli that produces fuel ethanol from non-edible sugar sources at an estimated cost of $1.30 gallon.The bioconversion technology, selected by the U.S. Department of Commerce to become Landmark Patent No. 5,000,000, is being commercialized with assistance from the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE). BC International Corp., based in Dedham, Mass., holds exclusive rights to use and license the UF-engineered bacteria.

In 2005, more than 4.5 billion gallons of fuel ethanol will be manufactured from corn starch and sugars. He said his technology will further expand ethanol production by converting celluloic waste into fuel ethanol, more than doubling current ethanol production.

Ingram, who is director of the Florida Center for Renewable Chemicals and Fuels at UF, cited a recent report from the U.S. Department of Agriculture and DOE that indicates more than one billion tons of biomass can be produced on a sustainable basis each year. Converting this to fuel ethanol could replace half of all imported petroleum in the United States.

Ingram said he genetically engineered the E. coli organisms by cloning the unique genes needed to direct the digestion of sugars into ethanol. With the ethanol genes, the engineered bacteria produce ethanol from biomass sugars with 90 to 95 percent efficiency.

Greg Luli, vice president of research for BC International's laboratory at the Sid Martin Biotechnology Center in Alachua, Fla., said the firm plans to build a 30-million-gallon biomass-to-ethanol plant in Jennings, La (shown in pre-construction drawing at the header of this posting). "The facility, expected to be operational by the end of 2006, will convert organic waste into ethanol, a form of alcohol that can be used as an industrial chemical and as a clean-burning fuel," Luli said. "Waste from the sugarcane industry in Louisiana will serve as the plant's main feedstock."

According to the BBI website, "BCI has successfully tested many cellulosic biomass materials, including these:
Sugarcane bagasse
Rice straw
Rice hulls
Softwood forest thinnings
Pulp mill sludge"

Footnote to information derived from the press release.

TreeHuggers have much to think about now that the objects of their desire, Trees, are going to be hugged for a new economic reason. Lets take a circumspect view of this idea, for the sake of insights about unintended consequences.

We alread know that, without taxpayer support of road building costs, that a great many of the Federal timber harvest leases would be money-losers. Its a form of price support for the construction and paper industies. This little E. Coli bug could up the ante in exploitation of non-park forest lands. I'm thinking here especially about the "pulpwood" stands of northern Maine, New York, Michigan, Wisconsin, and Minnesota. But it's no doubt a bigger issue.

Additionally, the many small-plot private forest lands now harvested only occasionaly, often just to cover state and local taxes on recreational properties, could be more intensively clearcut as a sacrifice to the Ethanol machine. A drive to Aspen on Aspen so to speak.

The so called "Healthy Forest" initiative that is overseen by the same USDA that is lessor of the cited biotech patent could provide much cellulosic biomass needed to feed future EtOH from biomass plants. With the continued Western US drought, there could be a huge impetus to build EtOH producing plants, using wood from Federally managed lands that would otherwise (as the story is told by the current administration) be under threat of wildfire. Out of the wildfire and into the fuel tank so to speak.

By designing the first prototype production facility around the use of sugar cane waste (bagas) the supply chain for non-corn ethanol will be dependent on an industry not exactly known for wetland protection, on an industry that also receives significant government price suppport. This feedstock choice would seem to throw into question any claims that otherwise might be made about sustainabiity.

On the highly positive side, one can imagine a not too distant future in which the lowest grades of waste paper, including food stained, wet paper and paperboard composite materials, instead of being consigned to landfill or to creating lower performing grades of paper board, will instead become feedstock for making ethanol. The beauty of this concept would be that only the highest grades of reclaimed waste papers would have to be shipped great distances to paper making operations. The lower grades of reclaimed paper and packaging would be digested in local ethanol plants, conserving large amounts of fuel and reducing emissions. Such plants could take advantage of sawdust and other direct wood waste as well. Demands for increasingly high recycled content in paper would fade away. That's value adding to a supply chain and common sense: paper mill sludge too can be EtOH feedstock.

Also on the positive side, the scaled up prospects for this technology...assuming that the 90+% conversion efficiency holds up...casts the existing ethanol-from-corn industry into an entirely different light. Instead of worrying about corn alcohol production competing for food growing acreage, and consuming more fossil fuel per Kg than comes back out of it during transportation use (all valid concerns right now), we can view the early, corn fed, EtOH industry as a transitional prototype, skimming off the good stuff to get us started on a path to real sustainability.

by: John Laumer

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