Maryland Bug Boosts Biofuels | Chemical & Engineering News
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Web Date: March 11, 2008

Maryland Bug Boosts Biofuels

Scientists at the University of Maryland say novel enzymes could help solve the ethanol dilemma
Department: Science & Technology | Collection: Sustainability
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FUELING UP
Ben Woodard (left), director of the bioprocess scale-up facility at the University of Maryland's Maryland Technology Enterprise Institute, works with Hutcheson to scale up Zymetis' bacterium.
Credit: Maryland Technology Enterprise Institute
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FUELING UP
Ben Woodard (left), director of the bioprocess scale-up facility at the University of Maryland's Maryland Technology Enterprise Institute, works with Hutcheson to scale up Zymetis' bacterium.
Credit: Maryland Technology Enterprise Institute

Maryland Gov. Martin O'Malley was at the University of Maryland, College Park, on March 10 to present a $50,000 state grant to Zymetis, a company spun off from research conducted at the university. The company will use the grant to accelerate the commercialization of a novel process to make ethanol from cellulosic biomass.

At the heart of the new process is a mixture of enzymes derived from the bacterium Saccharophagus degradans, which was discovered by chance and isolated from Chesapeake Bay salt marsh grasses. Steven W. Hutcheson and Ronald M. Weiner, professors at the University of Maryland's College of Chemical & Life Sciences, are patenting the mixture and naming it Ethazyme. Hutcheson founded Zymetis in 2006 to license the enzymes for biofuels production.

Today, most ethanol is made by fermenting sugars from agricultural products such as corn and sugarcane. But the large-scale use of food crops for fuel production is controversial because it will allegedly raise food prices. Thus, companies have been seeking ways to make fuels out of cellulosic waste products such as corn stover, woody residues, and switch grass with a variety of chemical and biochemical processes.

Hutcheson claims that the Zymetis enzymes are an advance in the field because they break down cellulose faster and "more simply" than other methods. "We believe we have the most economical way to make the novel, efficient enzymes needed to produce biofuels from cellulosic material," he says.

Zymetis is working with Fiberight, a firm that processes waste cellulose such as paper, to establish a plant that converts such waste into ethanol. With the process, a University of Maryland spokesman says, 20 lb of paper can yield 1 gal of ethanol.

 
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