Better "bugs" lead to cheaper ethanol from biomass

November 14, 1999

New agreements could boost U.S. biofuels industry

Golden, Colo., Nov. 10, 1999 -- Continued advances in genetic engineering are at the heart of two agreements that could further bring down the cost of making ethanol from biomass and boost the U.S. biofuels industry.

A new cooperative research and development agreement (CRADA) and licensing agreement have been signed between the U.S. Department of Energy's (DOE) National Renewable Energy Laboratory (NREL) and Arkenol Holdings of Mission Viejo, Calif. The agreements focus on developing new strains of genetically altered bacteria for use in converting rice straw to ethanol at a planned Arkenol refinery in Sacramento, Calif.

NREL and Arkenol researchers point out that such new bacteria strains could also be used to bring down the cost of chemicals and products from other biomass feedstocks.

"These agreements are good for DOE and the Laboratory because they help us get some of our pioneering research in genetically engineered organisms into wider use," said Mark Finkelstein, director of NREL's Biotechnology for Fuels and Chemicals center.

"The basic research done by NREL has significant economic value when deployed with Arkenol's sugar production technology," said Rus Miller, Arkenol Holdings' Chief Operating Officer. "We are delighted to have found this capability to deliver strains well suited to our needs and the people ready to improve their performance."

Under the CRADA, NREL will develop superior strains of a patented bacterium that could lead to faster and more efficient -- and therefore cheaper -- fermentation of rice straw into ethanol. The bacterium, Zymomonas mobilis, was originally genetically engineered at NREL to ferment both five- and six-carbon sugars. Most biocatalysts ferment only glucose, a six-carbon sugar.

By fermenting both sugars simultaneously, Zymonomas mobilis can expand by up to 40 percent the amount of biomass material that can be successfully converted into ethanol. Under the agreement, NREL will also generate data and materials useful for Arkenol acquiring engineering guarantees for their planned facility in Sacramento.

The licensing agreement will give Arkenol rights to use the NREL-developed microorganisms at its Sacramento facility.

The CRADA is cost-shared, with Arkenol contributing approximately 20 percent of the $400,000 cost of the research.
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