GAINESVILLE---A breakthrough biotech "bug" developed by a University ofFlorida scientist will help produce 20 million gallons of ethanol fuelannually at the world's first commercial biomass-to-ethanol plant.
Ground breaking for the $90-million facility being built by BC InternationalCorp. in Jennings, La., is set for Tuesday (10-20). The plant, expected tobe operational in 18 months, will be the first to convert organic wastebiomass into ethanol, a form of alcohol used as an industrial chemical andas a clean-burning fuel.
The plant's technology and operating system is based upongenetically-engineered bacteria developed by Lonnie Ingram, microbiologistwith the UF's Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences.
Ingram's microorganism produces a high yield of ethanol from biomass such assugar cane residues, rice hulls, forestry and wood wastes and other organicmaterials.
"Until we developed this new technology, the chemical makeup of biomassprevented it from being used to make ethanol economically," Ingram said."Biomass is a much cheaper source of ethanol than traditional feedstockssuch as corn and cane syrup.
"The new technology will allow ethanol to become economically competitivewith fossil fuels for the first time," he said. "Until now, all the world'sethanol has been produced by yeast fermentation, which converts sugars intoethanol, carbon dioxide and other by-products."
The UF bioconversion technology, which became landmark patent No. 5,000,000by the U.S. Department of Commerce in 1991, was the world's firstgenetically engineered E. coli bacteria capable of converting all sugartypes found in plant cell walls into fuel ethanol for automobiles.
Ingram's research is supported by the U.S. Department of Agriculture andDepartment of Energy. BC International Corp., based in Dedham, Mass., holdsexclusive rights to use and license the UF-engineered bacteria, dubbed"KO11" by the firm.
"Instead of using corn or grain to make ethanol fuel, they'll be used tofeed people," said BCI Executive Vice President Clinton Norris. "With thisnew technology, we can provide a source of energy by utilizing waste fromfarm crops -- not the crops themselves. In this way, we're helping solve theproblems of hunger and our endangered environmental resources."
The energy department, which is providing cost-sharing support for the newBCI facility in Louisiana, is promoting the new technology to increase thenation's energy independence and protect the environment.
"This is an important step in the development of sustainable technologiesfor an integrated bioenergy industry -- using biomass for the production ofelectricity, fuels and chemicals. It demonstrates the exciting results thatcan occur when government and industry work together to develop and deploynew technologies," said Bill Richardson, secretary of the energy department."It is fitting that BC International Corp.'s path-breaking ethanol facilitywill be launched on the 25th anniversary of the oil embargo, which was themajor impetus in the search for alternative sources of energy."
Currently, the United States consumes about 120 billion gallons ofautomotive fuel each year. Fuel ethanol from corn is blended with 10 percentof this gasoline to improve octane ratings and burn cleaner.
"There are enough agricultural and timber residues to completely replacegasoline in the U.S. and in many other countries," Ingram said. "Brazil hasused pure ethanol as a primary fuel for more than 20 years."
Ingram genetically engineered the organisms by cloning the unique genesneeded to direct the digestion of sugars into ethanol, the same pathwayfound in yeast and higher plants. These genes were inserted into a varietyof bacteria that has the ability to use all sugars found in plant materialbut normally produces acetic and lactic acids as fermentation products.
His ethanol genes served to redirect the digestive processes in thesebacteria to produce ethanol at 90 to 95 percent efficiency.
The above story is based on materials provided by Institute Of Food And Agricultural Sciences, University Of Florida. Note: Materials may be edited for content and length.
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