Mighty Microbe

The Q Microbe, found in the soil near a Massachusetts reservoir, can produce unprecedented amounts of ethanol in a single step. Supported by a company devoted to its process and improvement, it could lead the way to commercial production of cellulosic ethanol and the achievement of renewable fuel standard mandates.
By Lisa Gibson
Four years ago, Susan Leschine and her research team discovered unique traits and enormous value in a microbe found eight years earlier in the soil near a Massachusetts reservoir. Leschine, a microbiologist at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst called it a "eureka moment."

The Q Microbe, named after its home, Quabbin Reservoir, can produce large amounts of ethanol with almost any cellulosic feedstock. Not only that, but the microbe produces its own enzymes and combines the enzymatic breakdown of sugars and fermentation to ethanol into one step. It requires no additional enzymes to carry out the process. "We realized we had something that could really be useful," Leschine says. "We were doing an experiment for a completely different reason and we realized that the Q Microbe could produce lots of ethanol."

Researchers working with the microbe announced in July that they've achieved production of 70 grams of ethanol per liter of fermentation broth in the lab, surpassing the commercial production threshold of 50 grams per liter. That translates to about 9 percent ethanol by volume, according to Leschine, who has studied microbes for more than 40 years, the past 30 at UMASS. "It's really over the hurdle to be cost-effective," she says. "As far as we know, no one else in the world has achieved that," says Bill Frey, president and CEO of Qteros, a company founded to commercialize the microbe and its beneficial traits. "We've been able to achieve this through process improvement combined with the microbe's abilities," he adds.

The Q Microbe was discovered as part of a survey to understand the diversity of microbes that can break down plant material without oxygen. Less than one-tenth of 1 percent of the microbes that exist is known, Leschine says, adding that the microbial world is an amazing resource. "This was a sample that yielded a microbe very different from any other," she says. "It was a big surprise after looking all over the world, to find it just next door." The manmade Quabbin Reservoir is 10 miles from Leschine's lab and supplies water to Boston. It has served that function since the 1930s and still is one of the largest unfiltered drinking water supplies in the world.

Economics and Scalability

The two most important factors for Qteros to succeed in reaching commercial scale with the microbe's abilities are economics and scalability, both Frey and Qteros Executive Vice President Jef Sharp agree. "To have an impact on something as large as the planet's climate, scalability and economics is important," Sharp says. He adds that it needs to be capable of scaling up relatively simply. "Simplicity is very good with commodity production of anything," he says.

"One of the most exciting parts of scalability is being able to use different crops," Frey says, adding that it opens up possibilities for commercialization in different areas. The Qteros research team has experimented with corn stover, sugarcane, woody biomass and energy crops. Sharp adds the team is working with some other feedstocks, but declines to disclose them.

The research team currently operates out of a lab in Marlborough, Mass. The lab has the capacity to produce up to 100 liters of ethanol, Sharp says. "There's a lot going on in the lab," he says. "It's very exciting." Leschine still works as a consultant for the company, but continues to work at the university, where she does some Qteros-sponsored research. The company also has a license agreement with the university. Tentatively, Qteros plans to have an internal pilot facility completed this year and running in 2010, an integrated pilot in 2010 and a facility demonstrating and producing ethanol in 2011, Frey says. They most likely will be at different locations, he adds. The industrial biomass pretreatment phase will be somewhere in western Massachusetts, according to Sharp. The pretreatment phase is proprietary and not yet perfected, he adds.

The business endeavor began after Leschine and Sharp met through a mutual acquaintance, she recalls. Her team had discovered that the only way to realize the Q Microbe's commercial potential was to start a company devoted to it, she says. The answer seemed to be SunEthanol Inc., which would change its name to Qteros. "They had just come together to develop green technology," she says of Sharp and his colleagues at Sun-Ethanol. "It was really serendipitous."

A few different elements attracted Sharp to the venture, he says, including the microbe itself. "Its uniqueness and very early signs that it wanted to produce ethanol when our world needs renewable fuels," he lists as an attraction. Leschine's experience and expertise also had a positive influence. "She's great," he says. "She's very knowledgeable. She understood the impact that this could have."

Leschine thinks the collaboration was perfect because she has no experience in the business start-up world. "This business thing is a whole new world to me," she says. "They have to move fast and they do. It's a very interdisciplinary approach. I don't think I could do that. I'm still interested in the basic science."

Qteros will be a technology provider, Frey explains, not a company that will build, own and operate ethanol plants utilizing the microbe. The target is a four-year or less return on investment, he says.

So far, Qteros has obtained $30 million in funding, mostly from investors, and has an application pending with the U.S. DOE. Investors include Venrock, BP, Battery Ventures, Long River Ventures, Camros Capital, Soros Group and Valero. Both Sharp and Frey declined to release a cost estimate of commercialization. "It's hard to say what the final cost is going to be," Sharp says. "We like to right-size. We want to continue to be nimble and as soon as you start to get large assets built, it becomes difficult to be flexible."

Enzyme cost is a factor that can stand in the way of commercial production of cellulosic ethanol. "That gives us a pretty significant advantage over other processes," Sharp says. "It's hard to compete with a microbe that is this effective." With the microbe's characteristics come less capital and equipment costs, as only one tank is needed in the process.

Qteros' ultimate goal is to be a critical conversion technology, Sharp says. "We want to continue to improve the most cost-effective technology producing the world's transportation fuel," he says. Expansion and research into other, similar microbes could be possible in the company's future. "We're a company that is focused on that ultimate goal," he says. "If there are other discoveries that can help achieve that goal, we would consider that."

A Model Organism for Cellulosic Ethanol

Ethanol is a waste product in the microbe's process, Leschine says, comparing it to the process for making beer. The ethanol the Q Microbe produces would be like a very strong beer or wine, she adds. The microbe can produce large amounts of ethanol, tolerate high concentrations of ethanol and can break down all the important components of plant material, she says. "Because of that, it's pretty unique," she says. "It has become a model organism for cellulosic ethanol production."

Complete cellulosic conversion, going directly from the plant material to ethanol, has been dubbed the "Holy Grail" of cellulosic ethanol. Currently, the process for biological conversion of biomass to ethanol involves several steps. First, the biomass feedstock undergoes a thermochemical pretreatment that opens the lignocellulose, exposing the tough portion of the biomass to saccharification by enzymes, the second step. The five-carbon and six-carbon sugars released in these early steps are then converted to ethanol by a fermenting microbe. The final steps are to separate and purify the fuel. "This is an organism unlike any other using C5 and C6 sugars," Frey says of the Q Microbe. "It continues to amaze our scientists," Sharp says.

The 70 grams per liter ethanol output was achieved with no genetic engineering. "We've had so much progress with classical strain development, we haven't needed molecular biology," Frey says. "Knowing what we know now, it really has everything it needs," Leschine says. "But we can tweak it." People generally are afraid of genetic engineering, but it's not the technology itself, it's how it's used, she adds. "We fully expect and anticipate we'll be making considerable progress with genetic engineering," Sharp says.

What Does it Mean?

"It gives us the opportunity to achieve targets set in the [renewable fuels standard], which no one knows how to do," Frey says. The RFS2 mandates 36 billion gallons of renewable fuel production by 2022 and includes a category for cellulosic biofuels. It will mean more jobs, too, Frey adds.

"We think it'll be the most economic solution because the microbe is really unique and shows an appetite for different kinds of biomass and the ability to turn it into ethanol," Sharp says, adding that it's genetically hardwired to make ethanol from biomass. "It just wants to make ethanol," he says. "It'll be a win-win for everybody involved. There are challenges and we're not there yet. But with the recent advancements we've made, we feel pretty good about where we are."

"This is the path that will allow us to finally deliver on the promise of cellulosic ethanol," Frey says.

Lisa Gibson is a Biomass Magazine associate editor. Reach her at [email protected] or (701) 738-4952.