By Michael F. Carmichael
Jan. 21, 2010
In our attempts to control global warming by cutting down on greenhouse gasses will we be pricing some of our basic food products out of reach? Is the choice for ethanol as a non-polluting additive at the gas pump solely between food or fuel? There may well be a new alternative.
Next time you fill up your car take a closer look at the label on the pump that says something like “Contains 10 percent ethanol.” The ethanol is there to help reduce the greenhouse gasses normally produced by gasoline in an internal combustion engine. It replaces the initial additive which proved to be carcinogenic. For now most ethanol comes from corn - and competes for space on farms with corn for animals, including humans.
The idea of using biomass (plant or animal byproducts that can be converted to energy-producing materials) as a feedstock for ethanol has been around for quite some time. Corn became the most likely source because it is relatively inexpensive to grow and process. Plants to convert the corn to ethanol are now commonplace in the Midwest.
The process to produce ethanol from corn takes several steps.
A New Alternative
Qteros, a company in Massachusetts, has been working for several years on converting biomass to ethanol with just one step. A step provided by a single microbe - the Q Microbe. While microbes themselves can’t be protected by law, the process that uses the Q Microbe can be - and is - according to the new CEO of Qteros, John McCarthy.
He explains that the traditional corn-based ethanol process is like brewing beer or other alcoholic beverages in that it takes the starch in corn, breaks that down into components like sugars which are then fermented with yeast and then distilled into ethanol.
Food vs. Fuel
“As the growth of ethanol occurred, it began to have a negative impact on the price of corn,” McCarthy says, “and therefore a negative impact on the price of food. While it was not all that noticeable in this country it had a significant impact on the price of food in developing nations because we’re the biggest exporter of corn by far.”
The debate about using food for fuel began to escalate and that sparked a search for an alternative, a second-generation ethanol, “cellulosic ethanol,” according to McCarthy.
What if, instead of corn, ethanol could be produced, economically, from municipal sewage or byproducts of the lumber industry or non-food crops grown specifically for the purpose? “That’s been a notion for some period of time,” McCarthy says.
“Plant material consists of cellulose, hemi-cellulose and lignin,” he continues. “You just have to be able to break the cellulose and hemi-cellulose down into sugars and convert those to ethanol, a process that is far from being optimized and thus made cost-efficient. It’s still in its nascent stage and requires a number of steps before you can utilize the raw material efficiently.”
The One Bug Process
“The Holy Grail of cellulosic ethanol production is to use a single organism, which will produce the requisite amount of enzymes on the front end of the process to break the biomass down into sugars and then that same singular organism can ferment those sugars into ethanol, all in one step,” explains McCarthy. “One bug that can do everything.”
The one bug process, then, would significantly reduce the capital expenditures necessary for building and operating plants using the old first-generation ethanol extraction process.
But Qteros is a technology-based company explains McCarthy so, “We’re not going to get into the production business.” He says that he’s been there before and that it’s capital-intensive and requires a deep skillset that Qteros doesn’t want to build. Instead, McCarthy wants to work with existing production partners to build demonstration projects which can easily be ramped up when they become successful.
Funding and Timing
That’s the philosophy behind partnering with energy companies such as BP and Valero who are significant investors in Qteros as well. As with any high-tech startup, money is a key ingredient in the process. Other investors include the Soros organization, Battery Ventures, a firm with more than $3 billion in high-tech startups, and Venrock, originally started as an investment arm of the Rockefeller family, and which has successfully helped launch Apple Computer and DoubleClick, the company behind so many ads on Web sites that seem to be targeted directly at you.
The timing of a company such as Qteros is almost as critical as getting the right funding. According to the company Web site, the story of Qteros began 14 years ago with a walk near the Quabbin Reservoir in Western Massachusetts. University of Massachusetts microbiologist Dr. Susan Leschine was looking for a microbe that breaks down plant waste, but found something far more noteworthy. The microscopic organism sampled from the mud, and later named Clostridium phytofermentans, was isolated and recognized as a novel life form.
Trademarking a Microbe
The microbe, though, was in the public domain. What got it the status of protection by U.S. Trademark law was the process that Qteros developed called the Complete Cellulosic Conversion process, or C3, reflecting the many talents of the bug. The process is unique enough to get the coveted “TM” after the nom de science of Q Microbe. It’s also much easier to say and remember than Clostridium phytofermentans.
Professor Leschine became one of the founders of Qteros and remains an important scientific contributor to the company.
The C3 process, says CEO McCarthy, results in a “greener, less carbon-intensive environmental footprint than first-generation ethanol production.” By using byproducts instead of corn the choice of feedstock becomes much greater and corn production can instead be returned to food for livestock and humans.
“Cellulosic ethanol production addresses all of the environmental concerns raised in the first-generation process,” McCarthy continues, “It just has to be scaled into commercial production and that’s what we, and others, are aggressively pursuing.”
A Federal Mandate
The goal of commercial production promises to be very profitable. “The Energy and Security Act that was passed in 2007 mandated a minimum amount of cellulosic ethanol that has to be incorporated into the fuel stock in the United States,” says McCarthy. “That amount starts at 100 million gallons starting this year and scales up to 16 billion gallons by 2022. That’s not just a policy, it’s a mandate.” But the initial figure probably won’t be met until 2011, according to McCarthy, and it will be 2012 before it becomes mainstream and readily available at gas pumps.
There’s also the possibility that the percentage of ethanol blended into gasoline will be increased.
Looking Into the Future
As the price of regular unleaded rises toward $3 or more a gallon, motorists are often lured into some stations with a sign that reads closer to $2 or $2.25. That price, however, is for E-85. That’s the blend that turns the traditional mixture on its head with 85 percent ethanol and 15 percent gasoline.
“A significant percentage of vehicles produced by Detroit automakers can handle up to E-85 now. People just don’t know it,” McCarthy says. In most cases it just means adding a component to the engine. Perhaps a worthwhile investment if you’re planning on keeping a vehicle for a significant number of miles. A caution from McCarthy is that the infrastructure for widespread ethanol use at that level is limited at the moment, “Ethanol cannot currently be piped through existing gasoline pipelines,” he explains. “It has to be trucked or delivered by rail and that’s one of the infrastructure challenges. For the short term you want to have your ethanol production facilities close to where your refineries are.”
That seems like the kind of challenge entrepreneurs would be up to.