April 2008

University scientists find key to low-cost ethanol

The secret to making an inexpensive substitute to gasoline may come from a bacterium found eating marsh grass in the Chesapeake Bay.

A chance discovery not detected in the Bay since, the bacterium, called Saccharophagus degradans, can create a mixture of enzymes - through a patent-pending system developed by College of Chemical and Life Sciences Professors Steve Hutcheson and Ron Weiner - that break down almost any source of biomass, or plant life, into sugars, which are then converted into ethanol and other biofuels. Called Ethazyme™, the biomass-degrading enzyme mixture is licensed exclusively to University of Maryland spin-off Zymetis, Inc.

Zymetis is the newest company to join the university’s technology company incubator, the Technology Advancement Program (TAP). Zymetis also just entered a partnership with Fiberight, a regional company that processes cellulosic waste products (such as paper not normally collected as part of existing recycling programs). The two companies are teaming to establish by the end of 2008 a full-scale facility to process various cellulosic waste products into ethanol.

Cellulosic biofuels can come from non-grain plant sources such as waste paper, distillers’ spent grain (brewing byproducts), leftover materials from agriculture - including straw, corncobs and husks - and energy crops such as switchgrass. Biofuels produced from these inexpensive and renewable sources could exert less of a negative impact on the environment than either corn-based ethanol or gasoline.

“We believe we have the most economical way to make the novel, efficient enzymes needed to produce biofuels from cellulosic material,” says Hutcheson, who is on leave from the university and is founder and CEO of Zymetis. “Ethazyme breaks down cellulosic sources faster and more simply than any product available, resulting in lower costs.”

An additional challenge, generating improved fuel yields from sugars, is the subject of a new research project Zymetis is conducting with Life Sciences Associate Professor Jonathan Dinman. Dinman is genetically engineering a yeast strain, using genes from the Bay-derived bacterium, to improve the production of ethanol from fermentable sugars by at least a third. The project, worth $112,000, is jointly funded by both the MTECH Maryland Industrial Partnerships (MIPS) Program and the company.

Although Zymetis researchers have been unable to isolate the bacterium in the Bay again, they are producing it in their laboratories through cultured growth.