University of Maryland scientists explore low-cost ethanol source

By Jessica Ebert
University of Maryland researchers recently announced that a bacterium discovered in the Chesapeake Bay more than 20 years ago may hold the key to the cost-competitive production of ethanol from cellulose. The bacterium, Saccharophagus degradans, produces a mixture of enzymes capable of degrading a range of cellulosic materials from marsh grasses to newspapers.

The biomass-degrading enzyme cocktail, trademarked Ethazyme, is being developed by Zymetis Inc., a University of Maryland spin-off and the newest company to join the school's technology company incubator, the Technology Advancement Program. Zymetis has also entered into a partnership with Fiberight LLC, a regional processor of cellulosic waste. The two companies aim to establish a full-scale cellulosic ethanol plant by the end of 2008. "We believe we have the most economical way to make the novel, efficient enzymes needed to produce biofuels from cellulosic material," said Steven Hutcheson, founder and chief executive officer of Zymetis, and a chemical and life sciences professor currently on leave from the university. "Ethazyme breaks down cellulosic sources faster and more simply than any product available, resulting in lower costs."

Ethazyme degrades cell walls and other components of plants to fermentable sugars in a single step, which, compared with other processes, is faster, cheaper and reduces the need for caustic chemicals.