Q microbe ethanol production to begin this year

By Lisa Gibson
Small-scale ethanol production using the Q microbe should begin by the end of the year, according to Jeff Sharp, founder and vice president of Qteros, formerly Sun Ethanol, the company formed in 2006 to develop Q microbe technology.

The pre-treatment phase will occur at Solutia, a specialty products plant in Springfield, Mass. The site is advantageous because labs and other necessary facilities already exist there, according to Susan Leschine, a professor of microbiology at the University of Massachusetts.

"The Solutia site is where we are going to put at least one phase of our scale-up," Sharp said. "Other phases may also be at Solutia. They are being engineered as well. The final site is yet to be determined."

Developing the pre-treatment pilot at Solutia will cost about $6 million, Sharp said. He declined to release costs for other phases, as they are still in the engineering stage. Since Q microbe technology development is only in the pilot process, ethanol will be produced in small quantities, Sharp said.

The conversion rate depends on the feedstock, he said, but it's better than 80 percent. The feedstock is all cellulosic and includes corn stover, sugarcane, woody biomass and other energy crops. "Just about anything we feed it, it breaks down and turns it into ethanol," he said.

The Q microbe, found in the soil near a Massachusetts reservoir, simplifies the ethanol process by condensing the enzymatic hydrolysis and fermenting processes into one step, said Leschine, who is on the team of scientists that discovered the trait.

It's a huge savings in capital costs, she says, because two separate facilities aren't necessary. The Q microbe also requires a less harsh pre-treatment, she added. "Definitely the financial aspect is the most important benefit," she said. "Making it viable and cost effective is critical."

The team was looking for microbes that make good enzymes when the discovery was made, Leschine said. "It wasn't until we looked carefully at how it does the conversion process that we discovered this," she said.