Doe Science news source
The DOE Science News Source is a Newswise initiative to promote research news from the Office of Science of the DOE to the public and news media.
  • 2007-09-18 05:00:00
  • Article ID: 533439

Cellulose-Munching Microbe at Heart of New Bioethanol Company

CONTACT: Susan Leschine

413/545 0673, suel@microbio.umass.edu

The search for greener alternatives to fossil fuels has led to a major investment in a microbe that converts plant matter into ethanol. Dubbed the "Q microbe," the bacterium has been the focus of University of Massachusetts Amherst microbiologist Susan Leschine's work for the past decade. Now it's taking center stage at SunEthanol, a new Amherst-based biofuels technology company. Noted for its appetite for all things cellulose—including switchgrass, wood pulp and corn plant waste—the bacterium is highly efficient at converting biomass to ethanol. And it does so in a carbon-neutral process that doesn't require the additional enzyme treatments usually accompanying bioethanol production.

SunEthanol recently received millions of dollars in funding from several venture capital funds and other investors, including VeraSun Energy, one of the nation's largest producers of renewable fuel. Leschine, who is chief scientist at SunEthanol, will discuss the new approach to bioethanol production at the Pacific Rim Summit on Industrial Biotechnology and Bioenergy in Honolulu on Nov. 14-15.

The Q microbe is actually a strain of the soil-dwelling bacterium Clostridium phytofermentans, which was isolated from forest soil collected near the Quabbin Reservoir in central Massachusetts by Thomas Warnick, a member of Leschine's lab. The bacterium had never been described before by science and Clostridium phytofermentans was recognized in 2002 as a novel organism.

"We were focused on anaerobes," says Leschine, organisms that make a living in environments without oxygen. While going about their daily business—in this case breaking down plant litter—these anaerobes undergo fermentation. Many produce ethanol and a harmless vinegar-like substance called acetate, along with some hydrogen and carbon dioxide as waste.

What struck Leschine about C. phytofermentans was the amount of ethanol it produced. Most anaerobes make acetate as their primary product (hence the use of yeast and not bacteria for beer production), but this bacterium produced three to eight times more ethanol than acetate during fermentation.

The microbe is also unusual in its ability to consume such a wide variety of plant material. It breaks down cellulose with ease, the notoriously tough molecule that's the primary component of plant biomass. So Leschine's team surveyed the bacterium's dietary preferences, feeding it everything from wood pulp waste to sugar cane bagasse, the plant matter that's left over once sugar cane is crushed. Pectin, starch, xylan and other plant polymers that can be difficult to digest were no problem for the microbe.

"Q is able to break down such a wide variety of these components—it's a real generalist," says Leschine. "Can you imagine the enzymes it makes?"

The microbe's enzymes are another property that makes it an ideal organism for use in large-scale production of ethanol from biomass. Usually, cellulosic ethanol production involves several steps: pre-treat the plant material mechanically or chemically to get rough biomass; treat rough biomass with enzymes that have been bought or made in a lab; add the fermenting organism; recover and purify the ethanol. But the Q microbe's own enzymes are more than sufficient, eliminating a costly step and consolidating production into one tank. Low estimates are that this consolidated production reduces costs by 25 percent, says Leschine.

A final trait that makes the Q microbe an attractive addition to the alternative fuels roster is the process by which it makes ethanol is carbon neutral and can be carbon negative, depending on the biomass that's being used, says Leschine. The process uses plant waste—plants that have taken carbon dioxide out of the atmosphere—versus taking carbon out of the ground in the form of petroleum. While the fermentation process releases some carbon dioxide, that amount isn't more than what the original plants took in and therefore isn't adding carbon to the cycle the way petroleum products do. And if a plant such as switchgrass is used, which stores large amounts of carbon in its roots, the process is actually carbon negative, putting carbon that was in the atmosphere into the ground.

Now that SunEthanol has secured its first round of funding, Leschine and her researchers are exploring the forms of biomass that microbe Q favors, optimizing pre-treatments and fermentation conditions. While Leschine never imagined she would be propelled from the laboratory into the world of venture capitalism, she says the process has been rewarding.

"Once we recognized that this work could really benefit the world, it could help reduce carbon dioxide emissions—well, that's huge," she says. "I felt an obligation."

-30-

X
X
X
  • Filters

  • × Clear Filters

Ultrathin Device Harvests Electricity From Human Motion

Imagine slipping into a jacket, shirt or skirt that powers your cell phone, fitness tracker and other personal electronic devices as you walk, wave and even when you are sitting down. A new, ultrathin energy harvesting system developed at Vanderbilt University's Nanomaterials and Energy Devices Laboratory has the potential to do just that.

Energy-Efficient Accelerator Was 50 Years in the Making

With the introduction of CBETA, the Cornell-Brookhaven ERL Test Accelerator, Cornell University and Brookhaven National Laboratory scientists are following up on the concept of energy-recovering particle accelerators first introduced by physicist Maury Tigner at Cornell more than 50 years ago.

Scientists Program Yeast to Turn Plant Sugars into Biodiesel

Redox metabolism was engineered in Yarrowia lipolytica to increase the availability of reducing molecules needed for lipid production.

Soils Could Release Much More Carbon than Expected as Climate Warms

Deeper soil layers are more sensitive to warming than previously thought.

3-D Models Help Scientists Gauge Flood Impact

Using one of the world's most powerful supercomputers--Titan, the 27-petaflop Cray XK7 at the Oak Ridge Leadership Computing Facility (OLCF)--a University of Iowa team performed one of the first highly resolved, 3-D, volume-of-fluid Reynolds-averaged Navier-Stokes (RANS) simulations of a dam break in a natural environment. The simulation allowed the team to map precise water levels for actual flood events over time.

Titan Simulations Show Importance of Close 2-Way Coupling Between Human and Earth Systems

A new integrated climate model developed by Oak Ridge National Laboratory and other institutions is designed to reduce uncertainties in future climate predictions as it bridges Earth systems with energy and economic models and large-scale human impact data.

Weaving a Fermented Path to Nylons

Microbial enzymes create precursors of nylon while avoiding harsh chemicals and energy-demanding heat.

India's EV Drive Will Boost Power Utilities, Increase Energy Security

India is pushing hard to electrify its automobile market, aiming to sell only electric vehicles (EVs) by 2030. But what impact will that shift have on the country's utilities and the grid? A new report by scientists at Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory (Berkeley Lab) has found that the prospective EV expansion will deliver economic benefits, help integrate renewable energy, and significantly reduce imports of foreign oil.

Studying Argon Gas Trapped in Two-Dimensional Array of Tiny "Cages"

For the first time, scientists have trapped a noble gas in a two-dimensional porous structure at room temperature. This achievement will enable detailed studies of individual gas atoms in confinement--research that could inform the design of new materials for gas separation and nuclear waste remediation.

Mica Provides Clue to How Water Transports Minerals

In a new study from the U.S. Department of Energy's (DOE) Argonne National Laboratory, in collaboration with the University of Illinois at Chicago and the University of Delaware, chemists have been able to look at the interface between water and muscovite mica, a flat mineral commonly found in granite, soils and many sediments. In particular, the researchers looked at the capture and release of rubidium - a metal closely related to but more easily singled out than common elements like potassium and sodium.


  • Filters

  • × Clear Filters

Construction Begins on International Mega-Science Experiment to Understand Neutrinos

In a unique groundbreaking ceremony held this afternoon at the Sanford Underground Research Facility in Lead, South Dakota, a group of dignitaries, scientists and engineers from around the world marked the start of construction of a massive international experiment that could change our understanding of the universe. The Long-Baseline Neutrino Facility (LBNF) will house the international Deep Underground Neutrino Experiment (DUNE), which will be built and operated by a group of roughly 1,000 scientists and engineers from 30 countries.

Buchanan Named Deputy for Science and Technology at Oak Ridge National Laboratory

Michelle Buchanan, an accomplished scientific leader and researcher, has been appointed Deputy for Science and Technology at the Department of Energy's Oak Ridge National Laboratory by new Lab Director Thomas Zacharia.

Neutrino Project to Fuel Particle Physics Research

Over the next decade, 800,000 tons of rock will be excavated from the former Homestake Mine in Lead, South Dakota, to accommodate a particle detector filled with 70,000 tons of liquid argon cooled to -300 degrees Fahrenheit to study neutrinos beamed from Fermilab in Illinois. It's called the Deep Underground Neutrino Experiment.

Berkeley Lab to Lead Multimillion-Dollar Geothermal Energy Project

The Department of Energy's Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory (Berkeley Lab) will lead a new $9 million project aimed at removing technical barriers to commercialization of enhanced geothermal systems (EGS), a clean energy technology with the potential to power 100 million American homes.

PNNL Scientist Ruby Leung Appointed a Battelle Fellow

Ruby Leung of the Department of Energy's Pacific Northwest National Laboratory has been named a Battelle Fellow -- the highest recognition from Battelle for leadership and accomplishment in science. She is one of eight Battelle fellows at PNNL.

Gu and Paranthaman Named ORNL Corporate Fellows

Researchers Baohua Gu and Parans Paranthaman have been named Corporate Fellows of the Department of Energy's Oak Ridge National Laboratory.

DOE Funds Center for Bioenergy Innovation at ORNL to Accelerate Biofuels, Bioproducts Research

The DOE has announced funding for new research centers to accelerate the development of specialty plants and processes for a new generation of biofuels and bioproducts.

Grant Focuses on 'Hydrogen Sponge' for Use in Fuel-Cell Vehicles

Finding practical hydrogen storage technologies for vehicles powered by fuel cells is the focus of a $682,000 grant from the U.S. Department of Energy, awarded to Mike Chung, professor of materials science and engineering, Penn State.

Engineers Win Energy Department Grants to Help Develop a Reliable, Resilient Power Grid

Two Iowa State electrical engineers have won Energy Department grants to help improve the country's power grid. The projects' goals include addressing the challenges of adding high levels of intermittent power sources to the grid, mainly wind and solar power.

Heart of Matter Studies Resonate with Award Winner

Raul Briceno was presented with the 2017 Kenneth G. Wilson Award for Excellence in Lattice Field Theory on June 22. The award citation noted his "groundbreaking contributions to the study of resonances using lattice QCD."


  • Filters

  • × Clear Filters

Scientists Program Yeast to Turn Plant Sugars into Biodiesel

Redox metabolism was engineered in Yarrowia lipolytica to increase the availability of reducing molecules needed for lipid production.

Soils Could Release Much More Carbon than Expected as Climate Warms

Deeper soil layers are more sensitive to warming than previously thought.

Weaving a Fermented Path to Nylons

Microbial enzymes create precursors of nylon while avoiding harsh chemicals and energy-demanding heat.

Loosening of Lignocellulose: Switchgrass and Success in Sugar Release

Using a genetically modified line of switchgrass, scientists reduced plant cell wall recalcitrance while increasing sugar release over three generations.

Extending the Life of Lithium-Ion Batteries

Scientists offer new insights into how the source of electrons in batteries fails.

Unraveling the Molecular Complexity of Cellular Machines and Environmental Processes

State-of-the-art mass spectrometer delivers unprecedented capability to scientists.

Speeding Up Catalysts for Energy Storage

Researchers develop the fastest synthetic catalyst for producing hydrogen gas, potentially leading to a new environmentally friendly, affordable fuel.

Watching Neutrons Flow

Like water, neutrons seek their own level, and watching how they flow may teach us about how the chemical elements were made.

FIONA to Take on the Periodic Table's Heavyweights

FIONA (For the Identification Of Nuclide A) is a newly installed device designed to measure the mass numbers of individual atoms of heavy and superheavy elements. FIONA will let researchers learn about the shape and structure of heavy nuclei, guide the search for new elements, and offer better measurements for nuclear fission and related processes.

Laser Stripping Powers Protons

Researchers demonstrate a new technique that could lead to significantly higher power proton beams to answer tough scientific questions.


Spotlight

Saturday May 20, 2017, 12:05 PM

Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute Graduates Urged to Embrace Change at 211th Commencement

Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute (RPI)

Monday May 15, 2017, 01:05 PM

ORNL, University of Tennessee Launch New Doctoral Program in Data Science

Oak Ridge National Laboratory

Friday April 07, 2017, 11:05 AM

Champions in Science: Profile of Jonathan Kirzner

Department of Energy, Office of Science

Wednesday April 05, 2017, 12:05 PM

High-Schooler Solves College-Level Security Puzzle From Argonne, Sparks Interest in Career

Argonne National Laboratory

Tuesday March 28, 2017, 12:05 PM

Champions in Science: Profile of Jenica Jacobi

Department of Energy, Office of Science

Friday March 24, 2017, 10:40 AM

Great Neck South High School Wins Regional Science Bowl at Brookhaven Lab

Brookhaven National Laboratory

Wednesday February 15, 2017, 04:05 PM

Middle Schoolers Test Their Knowledge at Science Bowl Competition

Argonne National Laboratory

Friday January 27, 2017, 04:00 PM

Haslam Visits ORNL to Highlight State's Role in Discovering Tennessine

Oak Ridge National Laboratory

Tuesday November 08, 2016, 12:05 PM

Internship Program Helps Foster Development of Future Nuclear Scientists

Oak Ridge National Laboratory

Friday May 13, 2016, 04:05 PM

More Than 12,000 Explore Jefferson Lab During April 30 Open House

Thomas Jefferson National Accelerator Facility

Monday April 25, 2016, 05:05 PM

Giving Back to National Science Bowl

Ames Laboratory

Friday March 25, 2016, 12:05 PM

NMSU Undergrad Tackles 3D Particle Scattering Animations After Receiving JSA Research Assistantship

Thomas Jefferson National Accelerator Facility

Tuesday February 02, 2016, 10:05 AM

Shannon Greco: A Self-Described "STEM Education Zealot"

Princeton Plasma Physics Laboratory

Monday November 16, 2015, 04:05 PM

Rare Earths for Life: An 85th Birthday Visit with Mr. Rare Earth

Ames Laboratory

Tuesday October 20, 2015, 01:05 PM

Meet Robert Palomino: 'Give Everything a Shot!'

Brookhaven National Laboratory

Tuesday April 22, 2014, 11:30 AM

University of Utah Makes Solar Accessible

University of Utah

Wednesday March 06, 2013, 03:40 PM

Student Innovator at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute Seeks Brighter, Smarter, and More Efficient LEDs

Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute (RPI)

Friday November 16, 2012, 10:00 AM

Texas Tech Energy Commerce Students, Community Light up Tent City

Texas Tech University

Wednesday November 23, 2011, 10:45 AM

Don't Get 'Frosted' Over Heating Your Home This Winter

Temple University

Wednesday July 06, 2011, 06:00 PM

New Research Center To Tackle Critical Challenges Related to Aircraft Design, Wind Energy, Smart Buildings

Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute (RPI)

Friday April 22, 2011, 09:00 AM

First Polymer Solar-Thermal Device Heats Home, Saves Money

Wake Forest University

Friday April 15, 2011, 12:25 PM

Like Superman, American University Will Get Its Energy from the Sun

American University

Thursday February 10, 2011, 05:00 PM

ARRA Grant to Help Fund Seminary Building Green Roof

University of Chicago

Tuesday December 07, 2010, 05:00 PM

UC San Diego Installing 2.8 Megawatt Fuel Cell to Anchor Energy Innovation Park

University of California San Diego

Monday November 01, 2010, 12:50 PM

Rensselaer Smart Lighting Engineering Research Center Announces First Deployment of New Technology on Campus

Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute (RPI)

Friday September 10, 2010, 12:40 PM

Ithaca College Will Host Regional Clean Energy Summit

Ithaca College

Tuesday July 27, 2010, 10:30 AM

Texas Governor Announces $8.4 Million Award to Create Renewable Energy Institute

Texas Tech University

Friday May 07, 2010, 04:20 PM

Creighton University to Offer New Alternative Energy Program

Creighton University

Wednesday May 05, 2010, 09:30 AM

National Engineering Program Seeks Subject Matter Experts in Energy

JETS Junior Engineering Technical Society

Wednesday April 21, 2010, 12:30 PM

Students Using Solar Power To Create Sustainable Solutions for Haiti, Peru

Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute (RPI)

Wednesday March 03, 2010, 07:00 PM

Helping Hydrogen: Student Inventor Tackles Challenge of Hydrogen Storage

Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute (RPI)

Thursday February 04, 2010, 02:00 PM

Turning Exercise into Electricity

Furman University

Thursday November 12, 2009, 12:45 PM

Campus Leaders Showing the Way to a Sustainable, Clean Energy Future

National Wildlife Federation (NWF)

Tuesday November 03, 2009, 04:20 PM

Furman University Receives $2.5 Million DOE Grant for Geothermal Project

Furman University

Thursday September 17, 2009, 02:45 PM

Could Sorghum Become a Significant Alternative Fuel Source?

Salisbury University

Wednesday September 16, 2009, 11:15 AM

Students Navigating the Hudson River With Hydrogen Fuel Cells

Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute (RPI)

Wednesday September 16, 2009, 10:00 AM

College Presidents Flock to D.C., Urge Senate to Pass Clean Energy Bill

National Wildlife Federation (NWF)

Wednesday July 01, 2009, 04:15 PM

Northeastern Announces New Professional Master's in Energy Systems

Northeastern University

Friday October 12, 2007, 09:35 AM

Kansas Rural Schools To Receive Wind Turbines

Kansas State University

Thursday August 17, 2006, 05:30 PM

High Gas Prices Here to Stay, Says Engineering Professor

Rowan University

Wednesday May 17, 2006, 06:45 PM

Time Use Expert's 7-Year Fight for Better Gas Mileage

University of Maryland, College Park





Showing results

0-4 Of 2215