Monday, March 10, 2008

Zymetis

In what could become a huge advance for near-term cellulosic ethanol production goals, two professors from the University of Maryland are offering their solution to the issue of how to extract the sugars needed to make ethanol from cellulosic material. The claim is that a bacteria, isolated in marsh land near the Chesapeake Bay and names Sacharophagus degradans, is able to degrade cellulosic and chitinous materials such as corn stover, newspapers, or crab exoskeletons. The result is a fluid rich in sugars used by the yeast to produce ethanol. This advance would mean that conversion of simple-cellulosic feedstocks would be possible at a relatively low cost. The two professors have already started a company known as Zymetis to bring this conversion technology to market by the end of the year.
This is very good news and a great step in the right direction. Before celebrating, however, it would be nice to see some of the data on this microbe. First, it is hard to say how quickly the bug is able to break down the cellulosic material -- if it takes weeks such to break down some old newspaper then the costs saved using trash might be negated by the much larger tanks needed to digest the material in. Second, it is hard to say what the bacteria is converting the cellulose into -- for example, if it turns it all into glucose then yeast will love this bacteria like a PB&J. However, if it produces xylose or a glucose derivative that yeast are less efficient at converting to ethanol then there may be a problem. Finally, it is hard to say how much of the corn stover or newspaper can be degraded. In other words, if only half is being broken down then you will have a large slurry mess to deal with afterwords.
This technology is separate also from a more mid to long term technology known as gasification/ethanol production. Although gasification is said to be used in Coskata/GM's ethanol production schemes, this technology will be available in 2010 at the very earliest and there are still several problems to work out of the system between now and then. The benefits in gasification, if it can be engineered to work, is that cellulosic/chitinous material would not be the only materials utilized in such a system. Unlike Zymetis' method, gasification would allow the use of all material including lignin, which is seen in high proportions in woody plants.
Either way, the benefits of Zymetis' technology are that it will continue to bridge the gap between corn-based ethanol and cellulosic ethanol, which will hopefully take pressure off using only grain-based plant material in ethanol production and might serve to incorporate more cellulosic feedstocks such as switchgrass or trash that promise to make ethanol even more attractable because of lower GHG emissions.

For more info:
http://www.greencarcongress.com/2008/03/new-enzyme-comp.html#more

10 comments:

mus302 said...

It will be interesting to see how this works out but I agree there are a lot of practical questions that still have to be answered.

In the article it says that they hope to have a facility in place by the end of this year to produce ethanol from cellulose. I assume because of the short time frame that they are planning on converting an existing facility.

If it is easy to convert existing facilities or integrate into existing processes, that could be an advantage to this technology as well. Like I said it will be interesting to watch.

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