New Genetically Engineered Bacteria Could Make Cellulosic Ethanol Cheaper

wood shavings photo

photo: Andreas via flickr

It's been a pretty long road to making cellulosic ethanol commercially viable. As it stands there is one demonstration-scale cellulosic ethanol plant in the United States, and the the first commercial-scale biorefinery recently received approval back in July. Suffice it to say, cellulosic ethanol holds promise but is a work in progress.

Now comes word that researchers have engineered a bacteria which they say will make manufacturing the biofuel less expensive. The findings were published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Science but Reuters gives the details for those of us who aren't subscribers:

Bacterium Able to Operate at Higher Temps. Than Naturally Occurring Bacteria
The bacterium is known as ALK2 and can ferment all the sugars present in the biomass at higher temperatures (50°C) than naturally occurring bacteria. Lee Lynd, a professor at Dartmouth College and one of the authors of the study, explained that while natural bacteria can ferment cellulose "they do it at lower temperatures that require the use of an expensive enzyme called cellulase." When the fermentation process runs at higher temperatures it required two and half times less cellulase in one of the experiments the researchers performed.

Lynd touts the value of this discovery:

Our discovery is one potential avenue for research to facilitate turning inedible cellulosic biomass, including wood, grass, and various waste materials, into ethanol. In the near term, the thermophilic bacterium we have developed is advantageous, because costly cellulase enzymes typically used for ethanol production can be augmented with the less expensive, genetically engineered new organism.

Report Authors Tied to Mascoma
As yet this is just at the research stage, considering that Lynd is the scientific advisor and co-founder of Mascoma, a company developing cellulosic ethanol production methods, the ALK2 procedure will likely be commercially available the millisecond after Mascoma deems it ready.

via :: Reuters and :: Science Codex
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