SunEthanol receives third DOE grant for cellulosic research

By Susanne Retka Schill | May 09, 2008
Web exclusive posted May 27, 2008 at 8:45 a.m. CST

SunEthanol Inc. reports it has made huge progress on improving the productivity of its trademarked Q Microbe, a unique clostridium bacterium. "We've had up to a seven-fold increase since January, to the point where we're within reaching distance of economic viability," said Jef Sharp, chief executive officer of SunEthanol.

The company is focusing on the Q Microbe, the company's patented Complete Cellulose Conversion process which would make cellulosic ethanol production cost effective by combining the hydrolysis and fermentation of pretreated cellulose into a single step.

The Amherst, Mass.-based company announced May 16 it has received a $100,000 U.S. Department of Energy grant. SunEthanol has received three DOE grants in the past year to continue its research. The nine-month, phase one Small Business Innovation Research (SBIR) project is a collaborative effort between SunEthanol, Texas A and M University and the University of Massachusetts Amherst. John Kilbane, senior scientist of SunEthanol, is the principal investigator, bringing his experience in strain and bioprocess development to the project. Mark Holtzapple with the Texas A and M University is a national authority in the production of pretreated biomass, particularly using oxidative lime. Jeffrey Blanchard with the University of Massachusetts Amherst is an expert in the use of DNA microarrays for transcriptional analyses.

SunEthanol has also entered into a collaborative effort with Harvard University to further define genome tools for optimizing the microorganism. "We may get to economic viability without genetic engineering," Sharp said. "But we're laying the groundwork to develop these tools if necessary." He added that they are focusing on the more benign genetic engineering technologies, rather than the recombinant methods.

"We're on a roll at this moment for being a leading contender to be first," Sharp said of SunEthanol's efforts to create a commercially viable cellulosic ethanol process. The company is presently negotiating with three different strategic partners, and expects to be soon working on pilot scale projects with those partners as well as in its own facilities.

Parekh said the microbe displays another encouraging characteristic. "It bio-converts all feedstock carbohydrates to ethanol in a single step. Our consolidated bio-processing platform will result in higher yields of carbohydrates from each ton of biomass, and thereby enable us eventually to produce ethanol at a cost below gasoline."

SunEthanol is working on three federally-funded research and development projects. Recent breakthroughs in the lab are enabling SunEthanol to demonstrate the economic and technical feasibility of its approach and complete scale-up. The company is working under a DOE contract with industry leaders VeraSun Energy Corp. and ICM Inc. to build a pilot-scale cellulosic ethanol plant in St. Joseph, Mo., in 2009.