In Microbe, Vast Power For Biofuel

Thomas Warnick, a University of Massachusetts lab technician, near the spot in the Quabbin Reservoir where he filled a jar with dirt that turned out to have a cellulose-chomping, ethanol-producing microbe.
Thomas Warnick, a University of Massachusetts lab technician, near the spot in the Quabbin Reservoir where he filled a jar with dirt that turned out to have a cellulose-chomping, ethanol-producing microbe. (By Steven Mufson -- The Washington Post)
By Steven Mufson
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, October 18, 2007

QUABBIN RESERVOIR, Mass. Ten years ago, an assistant from a microbiology laboratory took a hike near the shore of the vast Quabbin Reservoir, which supplies water to Boston. At one point, he crouched alongside a brook in the shade of towering hemlock trees, dug up some moist dirt, put it in a jar and took it back to the lab.

Today, some investors are betting that the jar of dirt could help change the biofuels industry.

Inside the jar, microbiology professor Susan B. Leschine found curious lollipop-shaped microbes with an uncommon ability to break down leaves and plant fibers into ethanol. For 30 years, Leschine has been researching this sort of thing and writing about it for publications such as the International Journal of Systematic and Evolutionary Microbiology.

Some venture capitalists in the area have convinced Leschine that her tiny microbe could be very big business. Now Leschine, who teaches at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst, is also chief scientist at SunEthanol, a start-up firm with about a dozen employees.

The firm has attracted an equity investment from VeraSun Energy, one of the nation's biggest producers of ethanol derived from corn and used as motor fuel. It is VeraSun's first investment in the next generation of ethanol, known as cellulosic ethanol, made from switch grass, wood chips and other plant fibers. Now SunEthanol is racing to gear up for commercial production of the microbe so it can move from the cloudy test tubes in Leschine's cluttered lab into the giant vats at VeraSun's refineries.

SunEthanol is just one of countless firms searching for ways to make cellulosic ethanol a commercially viable business. At the moment, they have a way to go. Unlike ethanol made from corn, not a drop of cellulosic ethanol is being commercially produced. Half a dozen pilot projects are being built -- with the help of $385 million in Energy Department grants -- but no one claims to have a sure thing.

"We're optimistic, but we're also realistic that this is an early-stage company and it still has many hurdles to cross," said Bill Honnef, VeraSun's vice president for strategic initiatives. "We will look at the program over the next year and figure out how we're doing. At that point, we will decide whether to make further investments."

Congress is working to prime the cellulosic ethanol pump. The Senate version of the energy bill being considered would require the oil industry to use 21 billion gallons annually of "advanced biofuels," including cellulosic ethanol, by 2022. A tax break would allow companies to deduct half the cost of a new plant in the first year of operation. And cellulosic ethanol would draw generous subsidies for oil refiners who mix it into their gasoline.

Still, many technological hurdles remain, and much of the venture capital poured into the cellulosic ethanol industry is going into companies like SunEthanol that are searching for ways to make the manufacturing process more efficient and profitable.

A key part of the challenge is figuring out how to better break down cellulosic material -- such as cornstalks or wood chips -- into ethanol. Many firms are trying to do that in two steps, first breaking down cellulose into sugars and then fermenting sugars to produce ethanol for use in motor fuel.

Many companies are genetically engineering enzymes to do the first task. Those enzymes tend to be expensive. On Monday, Genencor, a division of Danisco, announced that it had developed a new product, Accellerase 1000, that it said contains a combination of enzymes that reduces cellulosic biomass into fermentable sugars.

"Lots and lots and lots of groups and companies are looking for new cellulases," or enzymes that process cellulose, said J. Craig Venter, who raced the federal government in mapping the human genome. Venter's company, Rockville-based Synthetic Genomics, is searching for naturally occurring chemicals that can turn sugar into diesel fuel. "A key part of nature is breaking down plant debris," he said. "So we find all kinds of environments with unique cellulases in them."

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