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Published on May 20th, 2009 | by Dave Tyler


New Process Touted as Breakthrough for Cellulosic Ethanol

May 20th, 2009 by  

Mascoma Corp. says it has a way to make switchgrass such as this could be a more common and affordable source of ethanol.

Mascoma Corp. says it has found a way to remove several steps from the process of making cellulosic ethanol, cutting the cost and time it takes to make the fuel, while increasing yields.

[social_buttons] The Lebanon, N.H.-based company says it has made advances in consolidated bioprocessing, a process that uses engineered microorganism to make ethanol from cellulosic biomass, such as grasses, stalks and wood waste. Mascoma’s CBP process eliminates the need to produce costly cellulase enzymes, by producing the cellulase and ethanol in a single step.

There are two parts to the advance, the company, which grew out of research conducted at Dartmouth College, said.

The first is the use of thermophilic bacteria, or bacteria that grow at high tempertures. Mascoma says it genetically modified a bacteria called Clostridium thermocellum, and was able to produce achieve a weight to volume ratio of 6 percent ethanol, a 60 percent increase over  results from a year ago. Strains of the bacteria also helped reduce unwanted acid byproducts and can convert cellulose at a higher rate, without the help of cellulase.

The second advance used recombinant cellulolytic yeasts which further reduced the need to add cellulase to the process. The yeast cut down the use of cellulase in the conversion of hardwood to ethanol by 2.5 fold and eliminated the need for cellulase in processes that convert waste paper slude to ethanol, the company said.

Cellulosic ethanol has been held out as a better alternative to corn-based ethanol because of the potential for greater energy yields from the crops used to manufacture it.  Mascoma says its developments will usher in an age where billions of gallons of the stuff can be produced commercially.

“These advances enable the reduction in operating and capital costs required for cost effective commercial production of ethanol, bringing Mascoma substantially closer to commercialization,” said Jim Flatt, executive vice president of Research, Development and Operations at Mascoma.

Mascoma officials told Fox News that they expect their Rome, N.Y. test facility to be produce larger quantities of ethanol via this process later this year. The company presented the findings earlier this month as part of the 31st Symposium on Biotechnology for Fuels and Chemicals in San Francisco. Mascoma also has a deal with General Motors to help promote its research efforts.

Photo credit: Phlora’s flickr stream, via a Creative Commons License

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About the Author

Dave has over a decade of experience in journalism covering a wide variety of topics. He spent 7 years on the business beat for the Rochester (N.Y) Democrat and Chronicle, covering technology issues including the state's growing green economy. When he's not writing, you'll find Dave enjoying his family, being a bit of a music snob, and praying that the Notre Dame football team can get its act together. He lives in Rochester.

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