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DOE Offers $17 Million for New Cellulose-Fermenting Organisms

The US Department of Energy (DOE) is offering about $17 million for the development of highly efficient organisms that can convert cellulosic biomass into ethanol.

With this funding opportunity, DOE is seeking companies to develop fermentative organisms such as yeasts and bacteria that can process both C5 and C6 sugars equally well, simultaneously or sequentially; are genetically stable; and can survive a wide range of environmental conditions.

The funding announcement provides an overview of the problem:

A process based on the fermentation of pentose sugars (in the hydrolyzate) combined with the fermentation of glucose (derived from the saccharification of cellulose) is referred to as simultaneous saccharification and co-fermentation (SSCF). Currently both of these approaches face one or both of the following challenges.

First, both the saccharification and fermentation steps are hindered by toxins and inhibitors present in the hydrolyzate. Second, the fermentation of almost all the available six-carbon (C6) and five-carbon (C5) sugars to ethanol is vital to the overall economics of these processes. Currently, the cost effective conversion of all sugars by a fermentative organism to ethanol is not available.

Clearly organisms exist that can ferment the various sugars derived from lignocellulosic hydrolysis. However, the ability of the organisms to ferment hexose and pentose sugars equally well either simultaneously or sequentially has not been optimized. Often the conversion rates are low for C5 sugars and the costs for running two separate fermentation processes (one for C6 sugars and one for C5 sugars) are too high.

There are several novel approaches being examined by the biotechnology community to address these barriers in the cost-effective conversion of lignocellulosic sugars to ethanol and bioproducts. One key to the success of these approaches is the development of a fermentative organism that meets certain performance criteria. Base strains that could be adapted for specific process schemes are needed on a widely available basis. Such strains need to be able to convert a wide range of sugars at rates, yields and titers commensurate with production strain requirements and tolerate the potentially inhibitory environment of pretreated lignocellulosic biomass.

DOE has identified the following critical parameters necessary for the development of a cost-competitive process:

  1. High yield or, equivalently, full sugar utilization with minimal byproduct formation;
  2. High final ethanol titer;
  3. High overall volumetric productivity;
  4. Tolerance to inhibitors present in hydrolyzates; and
  5. Affordable microbial systems

Therefore, for the successful deployment of commercial biomass-to-ethanol biorefineries, fermentation organisms must be improved so that they function in an inhibitory environment with high concentrations of sugars and other compounds including ethanol, at reasonable cost.

Because the goal is to build a high-volume cellulosic ethanol industry (60 billion gallon demand projected in 2030), applicants must identify the target “high-impact” feedstock: one that is sustainable at quantities exceeding 100 million tons per year.

Although fermentation is only one of several integral steps in converting lignocellulosic biomass to ethanol, the DOE funding will not pay with these project funds for process improvements in any area other than the improvement of the fermentative organism. Applicants may use their own funds outside of cost share for improvements in the other process steps. Funds are prohibited for organism discovery, or basic research leading to organism development.

Participating companies must be willing and able to commercialize the organisms they develop and must have a sound business strategy to license and market the organisms. DOE expects an additional $10 million in fiscal years 2008 and 2009 for this initiative, subject to congressional appropriations.




They sure are single minded about ethanol. Why not longer chains? BTW I've heard lots about butanol, what are the properties of propanol?


Just gasify and make whatever you want. The techniques are proven, no enzymes and greater conversion efficiency. Much more flexible, producer gas to synthesis gas, to SNG or methanol or ethanol or F/T to kerosine or other fuels.


Hear hear! Chemical (organic and other chemicals that are partly composed of H and/or O, like nitro fertilizers) production is another plus.
Here is a link for other alcohol fuels:
It has the BTU and other information about C1-C5 alcohol fuels.

Harvey D.

As in many other fields, multiple diversified approaches is essential to come up with the 3 or 4 best methods to convert energy.

Time, cost and environmental requirements will eventually select the best products. It is too early to tell.

The same elimination process will take place with batteries, super capacitors, video displays, cars etc etc.


Does anyone have thought on the negative effects of what a super-efficient cellulose digesting organism would have on the environment if it got out into the wild? What is being done to keep these organism sterile so they don't make some sort of super-rot?


Some already exist, like the mold that digests/disintegrates cotton (GI's found out during WWII in the South Pacific).
_My take is to gasify or modify existing chemicals (like edible oils, or biomass) for fuel. NExBTL and Green Diesel are two takes on this.


Jungle rot was one of the first candidates as an enzyme producer for celluse ethanol. If they take that and GM it, who knows?


IIRC, "jungle rot" has been the subject of research for some time.  It doesn't seem to have led to any breakthroughs (neither has the "wood ear" fungus, which digests lignin).



Here is the story.

In 1950s US Army microbiologist Dr. Elwyn T. Rees became intrigued with “jungle rot”, a strange fungus that ate the uniforms of US troops in WW2. He isolated the fungus from rotting tent shipped from the South Pacific at the end of war. His bosses at the Army R&D Command in Natick, Ma, told him the fungus was a treat to national security and to destroy it. But he moved on with research, which gained momentum during oil crisis of 1970. The DOE took over research in 1980, working with Gulf Oil small refinery that was experimenting with ethanol derived from waste. This was tricky business. This is where Iogen’s Mr. Foody came in with pressure steam explosion technology to prepare feedstock. Eventually Gulf and DOE lost interest in technology, but Iogen survived and profited from it handsomely. No less than 100 millions of “stone washed” jeans was treated YEARLY using Iogen enzymes to create fabled faded-denim look. Earned money helped to continue research, until Amoco begin to fund it, then lost interest.

Currently Ottawa-based Iogen Inc. is established world leader in cellulosic ethanol technology, working together with Chevron.


Good background, but it still goes to my point about genetic modification. If they start to mess with this strain, who knows what might happen. All wood houses disintegrating? I do not want to take the chances..just gasify and synthesize whatever you need.

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