Colleges’ microbugs help create ethanol

A new Chicago-based energy company, partnered with General Motors Corp. (GM) and powered by microorganism research licensed from Oklahoma’s two largest universities, will produce an efficient type of ethanol, planners said.

GM unveiled Coskata, Inc. during the North America International Auto Show in Detroit, Michigan. The newly formed company plans to produce 40,000 gallons of ethanol and deliver it to GM for testing by year’s end.

Coskata, named after a wildlife preserve in New England, utilizes microorganisms that were first isolated and identified by researchers at the University of Oklahoma (OU) and Oklahoma State University (OSU).

“The connotation of that name is clean and green,” Coskata CEO William Roe said during a conference call. “We like to think of our company in the same way.”

The start-up’s founders licensed the work nearly two years ago. The bacteria, called acetogens, normally produce acetic acid when devouring feedstocks such as wood chips and agricultural waste.

An OU-OSU team found ways to modify the microbugs so they produce ethanol.

“There’s nothing particularly unique about the technology — it’s the organisms,” OSU researcher Ray Huhnke pointed out. “I feel very confident that they will take this to a commercial level.”

The Coskata method is different from ethanol production involving corn and other food sources. It takes nonfood biomass - including switchgrass or even old tires - and turns it into synthesis gas, then the bacteria produce ethanol during the fermentation process.

Using nonfood sources means the ethanol probably could be produced anywhere.

“This process can be exported all around the world,” said Mary Beth Stanek, GM’s director of environmental and energy policy. “We like the flexibility of that, and the flexibility of input materials.”

Proponents of the method say it produces seven times as much energy as it uses, unlike the nearly dead-even exchange with normal ethanol. Coskata officials believe they can extract 100 gallons of ethanol per one dry ton of feedstock.

Production costs reportedly would average only about $1 per gallon, compared with $1.90 to $2 right now for each gallon of gasoline derived from oil.

“This is the cost structure that will be realized at the pump,” Roe predicted.

GM, which got on board with an investment, plans to use the first commercial demonstration in its own vehicles.

Both partners hope they can reach a capacity for 100 million gallon facilities within three years. A marketplace priority is getting more Flexfuel and E-85 pumps, which serve engines using varying percentages of ethanol.

OU and OSU have been working about seven years on the gasification and microorganism processes, Huhnke said.

The combined effort so far has produced only small amounts of actual ethanol on the experimental level, but GM’s support and Coskata’s ambition should rachet up the potential, the OSU professor noted.

“It’s very early, but we’re confident that production can be scaled up,” Huhnke said.