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
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 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