Oct. 20, 1998 GAINESVILLE---A breakthrough biotech "bug" developed by a University of Florida scientist will help produce 20 million gallons of ethanol fuel annually at the world's first commercial biomass-to-ethanol plant.
Ground breaking for the $90-million facility being built by BC International Corp. in Jennings, La., is set for Tuesday (10-20). The plant, expected to be operational in 18 months, will be the first to convert organic waste biomass into ethanol, a form of alcohol used as an industrial chemical and as a clean-burning fuel.
The plant's technology and operating system is based upon genetically-engineered bacteria developed by Lonnie Ingram, microbiologist with the UF's Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences.
Ingram's microorganism produces a high yield of ethanol from biomass such as sugar cane residues, rice hulls, forestry and wood wastes and other organic materials.
"Until we developed this new technology, the chemical makeup of biomass prevented it from being used to make ethanol economically," Ingram said. "Biomass is a much cheaper source of ethanol than traditional feedstocks such as corn and cane syrup.
"The new technology will allow ethanol to become economically competitive with fossil fuels for the first time," he said. "Until now, all the world's ethanol has been produced by yeast fermentation, which converts sugars into ethanol, carbon dioxide and other by-products."
The UF bioconversion technology, which became landmark patent No. 5,000,000 by the U.S. Department of Commerce in 1991, was the world's first genetically engineered E. coli bacteria capable of converting all sugar types found in plant cell walls into fuel ethanol for automobiles.
Ingram's research is supported by the U.S. Department of Agriculture and Department of Energy. BC International Corp., based in Dedham, Mass., holds exclusive 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 to feed people," said BCI Executive Vice President Clinton Norris. "With this new technology, we can provide a source of energy by utilizing waste from farm crops -- not the crops themselves. In this way, we're helping solve the problems of hunger and our endangered environmental resources."
The energy department, which is providing cost-sharing support for the new BCI facility in Louisiana, is promoting the new technology to increase the nation's energy independence and protect the environment.
"This is an important step in the development of sustainable technologies for an integrated bioenergy industry -- using biomass for the production of electricity, fuels and chemicals. It demonstrates the exciting results that can occur when government and industry work together to develop and deploy new technologies," said Bill Richardson, secretary of the energy department. "It is fitting that BC International Corp.'s path-breaking ethanol facility will be launched on the 25th anniversary of the oil embargo, which was the major impetus in the search for alternative sources of energy."
Currently, the United States consumes about 120 billion gallons of automotive fuel each year. Fuel ethanol from corn is blended with 10 percent of this gasoline to improve octane ratings and burn cleaner.
"There are enough agricultural and timber residues to completely replace gasoline in the U.S. and in many other countries," Ingram said. "Brazil has used pure ethanol as a primary fuel for more than 20 years."
Ingram genetically engineered the organisms by cloning the unique genes needed to direct the digestion of sugars into ethanol, the same pathway found in yeast and higher plants. These genes were inserted into a variety of bacteria that has the ability to use all sugars found in plant material but normally produces acetic and lactic acids as fermentation products.
His ethanol genes served to redirect the digestive processes in these bacteria to produce ethanol at 90 to 95 percent efficiency.
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