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Enzymes emerge to speed ethanol production
Scripps Howard News Service


March 04, 2006

A half century ago, it was a curiosity - a rapacious fungus that rapidly ate through the fabrics of tents, uniforms or just about anything else the U.S. Army sent to the island of Guam.

Today the fungus that caused that notorious jungle rot - Trichoderma reesei - is in the forefront of research into rapid-acting enzymes that the Bush administration hopes will build a new ethanol industry.

If the effort is successful, it may turn plant waste into something you can use to drive your car.

"Enzymes are the secret sauce," says Martin Sabarsky, vice president of corporate development at Diversa, a San Diego enzyme manufacturer that has been working with enzymes drawn from the ocean's depths.





Sabarsky said recent breakthroughs in enzyme research and the use of bioengineering have led to a new ethanol industry in the United States.

"This was all pie in the sky before," he said.

Iogen, a Canadian firm, is planning to open in the next two years North America's first refinery to produce ethanol from bails of wheat straw using an enzyme drawn from the jungle rot fungus.

Iogen spokeswoman Tania Glithero said the company has narrowed down locating the $300 million facility in Alberta, Saskatchewan, or in Idaho to be close to a ready supply of straw, which many wheat farmers currently burn off after harvesting grain kernels.

While the idea of turning agricultural waste or sawdust into usable fuel might seem a fantasy, the Biotechnology Industry Organization, a Washington trade group, says technology is available today that could make it reality - thanks to enzymes drawn from funguses that cause jungle rot, or among those found in the digestive tracts of wood-eating termites or recovered from organisms that thrive on the lips of volcanic vents in the ocean's deepest and darkest parts.

"The tool set is here today," said Mark Emalfarb, founder of Dyadic International Inc. in Jupiter, Fla., which already is selling a supercharged enzyme derived from a Russian soil fungus - C-1 - for use in animal feeds and in making stone-washed jeans.

Farmers have found that adding enzymes to animal feed speeds up the consumption of nutrients in the stomachs of animals, leading them to absorb more nutrients and grow faster.

"The tools we have today, we didn't have 10 years ago, or 20 years ago," Emalfarb said.

President Bush, a former Texas oilman, says the United States needs to accelerate research into ethanol production using grasses or agricultural waste to restore America's energy independence.

Energy Secretary Sam Bodman is offering up to $160 million to build plants earmarked for rural areas that would extract ethanol from corn stalks, straw or other agricultural wastes.

The United States already has the world's second largest ethanol industry after Brazil, extracting ethanol from corn. Under terms of an energy bill that Congress passed last year ethanol will account for 7.5 percent of America's gasoline use over the next six years.

There is nothing novel in the idea of making alcohol from corn - moon shiners have done it for centuries.

But cellulosic ethanol is made from the sugars contained in the inedible cellulose fibers that form the stems and branches of most plants, and that has been a formidable hurdle to overcome.

For years, scientists have experimented with harsh chemicals, acids and high temperatures to break down the sugars in the plant wastes. Those processes are slow, expensive and can have an adverse impact on the environment.

Thanks to the revolution in bioengineering, scientists can select enzymes to speed up the process: Enzymes are natural proteins that are present in all living organisms, and are effective at breaking down sugars.

Once the sugar is extracted from the plant wastes, the process of making ethanol is the same fermentation process as used in making ethanol from corn.

Environmental groups have long lobbied Congress to put more money into ethanol production and wean drivers off imported oil. The Natural Resources Defense Council said in a 2004 report "Growing Energy" that cellulosic energy could replace half of transportation petroleum in 40 years.

At his Jupiter, Fla. firm, Emalfarb notes the process also could create a new plant-based plastics industry to compete against the petroleum-based plastics industry.

Still, Emalfarb acknowledges there are major hurdles to be resolved before an economically viable industry is developed. Engineers will have to come up with efficient designs for making refineries, and there are pre-treatment issues.

"We're not," Emalfarb said, "at the end of the rainbow."


Contact Lance Gay at GayL(at)
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