A chance discovery not detected in the Bay since, the bacterium, Saccharophagus degradans, can create a mixture of enzymes that break down almost any source of biomass, or plant life, into sugars, which are then converted into ethanol and other biofuels.
The bacterium has been put to work through a patent-pending system developed by University of Maryland College of Chemical and Life Sciences Professors Steve Hutcheson and Ron Weiner.
Called by its brand name Ethazyme, the biomass-degrading enzyme mixture is licensed exclusively to University of Maryland spin-off company Zymetis Inc.
Zymetis is the newest company to join the university's technology company incubator, the Technology Advancement Program. 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 recycling programs.
By the end of 2008, the two companies aim to establish a full-scale facility to process various cellulosic waste products into ethanol.
"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."
Ben Woodard, left, director of the Mtech Bioprocess Scale-Up Facility, and right, Dr. Steven Hutcheson, president and CEO of Zymetis Inc (Photo courtesy U. Maryland Mtech)
Today, ethanol is made primarily from corn. It is used mostly as an additive to gasoline rather than a fuel alternative, due in part to a strong demand for corn by the food industry.
The Zymetis system can make ethanol and other biofuels from many different types of plants and plant waste potentially making it a viable and inexpensive gasoline substitute.
Cellulosic biofuels can come from non-grain plant sources such as waste paper, distillers' spent grain brewing byproducts, leftover materials from agriculture such as 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.
Because these biofuels can be made entirely in the United States, their widespread adoption domestically could also reduce the nation's dependence on foreign oil.
Cellulosic materials share one characteristic - they are tough. The rigidity of plant cell walls forces ethanol producers to soften them with chemicals through a lengthy, multi-step pre-treatment process even before attempting to break them down into biofuel-ready sugars.
Ethazyme degrades cell walls and breaks down the entire plant material into sugars in one step, creating fermentable sugars faster and at a lower cost.
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.
Using genes from the bacterium, Dinman is genetically engineering a yeast strain 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 Program and the company.
Hutcheson and Weiner won the university's Office of Technology Commercialization Inventor of the Year Award in 2007 in the Life Science category for his enzyme system invention.
Although Zymetis researchers have been unable to isolate the bacterium again in the Chesapeake Bay, they are producing it in their laboratories through cultured growth.
The energy bill enacted late last year mandates oil companies to blend in 21 billion gallons of cellulosic ethanol with their gasoline by 2022. Hutcheson projects a $5 billion enzyme market for biofuels.
Copyright Environment News Service (ENS) 2008. All rights reserved.