An Indiana biotechnology company announced yesterday that it has begun producing a genetically modified yeast that promises to make it easier and faster to turn corn cobs, wood chips and a host of agricultural wastes into ethanol.
Green Tech America Inc. of West Lafayette said its modified yeast ferments both major forms of sugar – glucose and xylose – involved in creating cellulosic ethanol from plant matter.
The yeast, which arose from research at Purdue University dating back three decades, is a modified form of common baker’s yeast that its creators made using recombinant DNA techniques.
The genetically engineered microorganism allows cellulosic ethanol producers to make the fuel more quickly and with less energy than current methods, said Nancy Ho, a research professor at Purdue’s School of Chemical Engineering who’s also the company’s founder and president.
“Our goal is to make ethanol production more profitable – as much as possible,” she said. “And this yeast makes it more cost-effective for them.”
Green Tech America has licensed the yeast technology developed by Ho and her team. That license allows the company to sell the new yeast, tentatively named Purdue Yeast, and also provide companies with the technical help to use it at their ethanol plants.
Although Green Tech’s yeast is available now, Ho said she expects her 3-year-old company to begin full-scale production of the product in about a year at its headquarters at the Purdue Research Park, a 720-acre complex that’s home to dozens of other startup ventures.
Ho’s research is one of numerous privately funded and university-led projects under way across the nation that seek to push the cellulosic ethanol industry forward, said Brent Erickson of the Biotechnology Industry Organization, a national biotechnology trade group.
Erickson, the executive vice president of BIO’s industrial and environmental section, said most of those projects, like Ho’s work, are funded in part by the U.S. Department of Energy.
Unlike the process of creating corn-based ethanol, where corn is ground up and fermented with yeast to produce ethanol, he said it’s proven much more difficult to create ethanol from cellulose, the woody material in branches and stems that makes plants hard.
Erickson said some scientists are working to create improved enzymes to break down the tightly bonded sugars found in plant matter. Others, like Ho, have focused on developing new yeasts that can turn those sugars into ethanol.
“She’s enabling that part of the technology by creating an organism that can make those sugars into ethanol,” he said. “The goal here is to allow us to use corn stalks, rice hulls, municipal waste, grass clippings – anything that’s made out of plant matter – to make ethanol.”
Ho said her team is the only one in the United States that’s developed a yeast of this type.
Although other scientists have known for years that Ho’s basic research dating back nearly 30 years had produced a useful new form of yeast, the product is only now ready to market.
“I started working on this in 1980 – it’s been a long time,” she said. “That was the beginning of people trying to develop yeast for this purpose and many groups dropped out because it’s very difficult.”
Purdue isn’t the only state university with high hopes for yeast. Xylogenics, a firm hatched out of the Indiana University School of Medicine, bioengineers yeasts that increase efficiency in the production of ethanol from biomass. The Indianapolis-based startup is still in fund-raising mode, but believes it could bring in revenue of more than $65 million in 2011.