DOE, Harvard aid SunEthanol

By Dave Nilles
Another U.S. DOE grant and a collaborative agreement with Harvard University are helping to pave the way for a cellulosic ethanol company to develop a unique biomass-to-ethanol process. Amherst, Mass.-based SunEthanol Inc. received a $100,000 research grant from the DOE to help develop a process that converts biomass into ethanol in one step, compared with the current process that hydrolyzes and ferments pretreated cellulose. The grant was the DOE's third to SunEthanol in the past year.

The latest grant is a nine-month, phase one Small Business Innovation Research project consisting of a collaboration effort between SunEthanol, Texas A&M University and the University of Massachusetts. It's expected to aid in SunEthanol's quest to develop a one-step "consolidated bioprocessing" system to produce ethanol.

SunEthanol's previous DOE grant came in January when it was selected as one of four small-scale biorefinery projects to make cellulosic ethanol cost-competitive within five years. To commercialize the technology, SunEthanol is working with ICM Inc. at a pilot biorefinery next to LifeLine Foods, a 50 MMgy corn-based ethanol plant in St. Joseph, Mo.
On June 12, the company and Harvard's Office of Technology Development announced a collaborative research agreement, in which Harvard University will research and produce new genetically modified strains of SunEthanol's patented Q Microbe, a naturally occurring anaerobic microbe.

Jon Gorham, SunEthanol's cofounder and manager of business development, told Biomass Magazine that the latest DOE grant and the Harvard research collaboration are aimed at manipulating the molecular genetics of the microbe. The projects are parallel to SunEthanol's research in finding more effective native strains of the microbe.

The research will be conducted in the laboratory of George Church, Harvard professor of genetics and director of the school's Center for Computational Genetics. His laboratory will apply its expertise in DNA synthesis and genome engineering to create modified strains that will be tested by scientists at SunEthanol to improve biomass conversion and ethanol production. SunEthanol will have an option to license any of the strains created under the partnership. "Teaming with a Massachusetts leader in alternative energy illustrates the broad impact that Harvard's expertise in genetic engineering may have well beyond its traditional applications in medicine," said Isaac Kohlber, Harvard chief technology development officer.

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