October 15, 2009

EdeniQ, a California-based company working to commercialize next-generation biofuels, has licensed technology from Worcester Polytechnic Institute (WPI) for the development of cellulosic ethanol, a liquid fuel derived not from food crops, but from agricultural waste and other sources of environmentally-sound biomass.

 The license agreement caps a two-year research and development program at WPI's Life Sciences and Bioengineering Center (LSBC) at Gateway Park, funded by EdeniQ to optimize elements of the process used for producing cellulosic ethanol. Terms of the license agreement were not disclosed. "We are pleased that this project produced some discoveries that will be helpful in advancing biofuels that do not compete with the food supply," said Alex DiIorio, PhD., assistant professor of biology and biotechnology and director of the WPI Bioprocess Center at Gateway Park.

The ethanol used in the United States today is made almost exclusively from corn. Starch in the corn kernels is converted to glucose (sugar), which is then fermented–much as sugars are fermented to make beer or wine–to produce fuel-grade ethanol. However, due to concerns about food supply, land use, total carbon footprint and other factors, traditional corn-based ethanol is not viewed as the most desirable path to expanding the domestic fuel supply.

Cellulosic ethanol, on the other hand, is produced by releasing, and then fermenting, the sugars stored in cellulose, which comprises the tough fibers that give plants their shape and strength. Cellulose is the most abundant plant material on Earth, and cellulosic ethanol can be made from any plant material, including what is now considered agricultural waste such as wood chips, corn stover, sugar bagasse and similar materials. It can also be made from so-called "energy crops" which are plants such as switchgrass and miscanthus that grow on lands not suitable for farming. The challenge, however, is finding an economically feasible way to break down cellulose fibers to release their sugar.

To address that challenge, DiIorio's team looked to nature. They went into the field and took samples of organisms they found in places where trees and plants were decaying. They analyzed the arsenal of bacteria found in termite guts, as well as fungi and other organisms that secrete enzymes that convert cellulose into glucose that the organisms can use for nutrition. "Nature already knows how to break down cellulose quite effectively," DiIorio said. "The challenge is to learn from nature and create a process for producing cellulosic ethanol on an industrial scale."

Under the EdeniQ sponsored research program, DiIorio's team identified approximately 100 types of bacteria, including many novel strains not previously characterized, that appeared to be essential for breaking up cellulose in to sugars. The team then embarked on an intensive screening and optimization process, first, looking for organisms that naturally produced higher levels of glucose from cellulose. Then, using a variety of laboratory techniques, DiIorio's team worked to manipulate those high-achievers for use on a commercial scale. EdeniQ now has the exclusive rights to further develop those organisms for use in their proprietary processes for producing cellulosic ethanol.

"The research from WPI is integral to our on-going development of a scalable, cost-effective cellulosic solution," said Larry Gross CEO of EdeniQ. "This technology not only plays an important part in our low-cost process for converting cellulosic biomass into ethanol, but also is incorporated into our Corn3 Yield Enhancement Program which reduces the amount of corn used to make first-generation ethanol by about 10 percent."

Members of the DiIorio lab team who worked on the EdeniQ project include: Chris Dacuhna, now a senior scientist at EdeniQ, Deepak Ramamurthy, research assistant at WPI, and Chris McPhee, laboratory manager at WPI. "This was truly a team effort, and I appreciate all the good work people did to bring this to a successful conclusion," DiIorio said.