Science of Innovation: Biofuels

Air Date: 02/04/2013
Source:
NBC Learn
Creator:
Ann Curry
Air/Publish Date:
02/04/2013
Event Date:
02/04/2013
Resource Type:
Science Explainer
Copyright:
NBCUniversal Media, LLC.
Copyright Date:
2013
Clip Length:
00:05:31

While sources of biofuel currently exist, such as ethanol made from corn, Professor Steve Hutcheson at the University of Maryland is developing a new approach to producing biofuels from cellulosic biomass, using a bacterium discovered in the Chesapeake Bay. “Science of Innovation” is produced in partnership with the National Science Foundation and the United States Patent and Trademark Office.

Science of Innovation - Biofuels

ANN CURRY, reporting:

It enables cars to drive across the land, planes to soar through the air and boats to sail across the ocean. In 2011, the U.S. Energy Information Administration estimates the United States consumed about 134 billion gallons of gasoline. Now with rising gas prices and a desire to lessen the impact of fossil fuel emissions, scientists are on the search for new, cheaper sources of energy, including fuel made from living material known as biofuel.

PROFESSOR STEVEN HUTCHESON (University of Maryland): Biofuel is any form of a fuel that has a biological origin.

CURRY: While current sources of biofuel already exist, such as ethanol made from corn, scientists like Steve Hutcheson, a professor of microbiology at the University of Maryland, are seeking other options that would not take away from our food supply.  

HUTCHESON: Corn has an image problem. The image problem is food versus fuel. So there's been this tremendous push to find alternatives that have a smaller impact on food. 

CURRY: With funding from the National Science Foundation, Hutcheson has found a new approach to producing biofuels from cellulosic biomass - the fibers that make up the structure of plants such as wood, grass, or even leftover agricultural products like corn stalks. Part of what makes Hutcheson's discovery innovative is its ability to imagine a new and positive use for something that could have a negative and potentially damaging impact on the environment - a marine bacterium called Saccharophagus degradans.

HUTCHESON: This is a bacterium that was originally identified in decaying marsh grass in the Chesapeake Bay.

CURRY: In the late 1980's, researchers thought the bacterium, or bug, could be the cause of a die off of salt marsh grass in the Chesapeake Bay, the largest estuary in the United States.

HUTCHESON: It's an interesting little system, because the bug itself grows in the ocean, and that's huge. And therefore, the scientific term would be that's an infinitely large dilutant, and yet the bug itself can sense when it's in contact with something it can eat. 

CURRY: After listening to a lecture about the bug, Hutcheson became fascinated with the organism and decided to investigate it further to see if it could in fact degrade cellulosic biomass. Hutcheson was part of a team that sequenced the genome of the bug and discovered that it has the ability to release more than 100 enzymes to break down the three large molecules that make up the cell walls of plants - lignin, hemicellulose, and cellulose. The bug then eats the resulting sugars for energy.

HUTCHESON: You've got to break down the lignin, you have to break down the hemicellulose and you have to break down the cellulose and those aren't easy things to do.

CURRY: Hutcheson realized that the bug's unique set of enzymes could be reproduced and used to convert cellulosic biomass into sugar. It was then possible to ferment these sugars to produce the biofuel ethanol, but instead of making the fuel from corn, it can be made from any plant material.

HUTCHESON: It's really when we had the genome sequence and could go through the annotation, which is what the probable functions of the genes are, that we can come through and say that this is an amazing bacterium.

CURRY: With a new efficient way to process cellulosic biomass, Hutcheson filed several patent applications with the U.S. Patent and Trademark office to protect his ideas. He also started his own company in 2006 and filed a trademark for its name, Zymetis, to brand his business and identify the products it produced.

HUTCHESON: We started out with producing enzymes, realized that the market wasn't as strong as we thought, and moved over into a different area which was how to engineer the bacterium to make value-added products. These are going to be chemical products that have a higher value than either the feedstock that is being converted, the biomass, or the biofuel that's being utilized.

CURRY: Today the company is called Aemetis and its research and development arm operates on the campus of the University of Maryland. While cellulosic biofuels are currently in the pilot stage, Hutcheson says they are the next phase of growth for the biofuel industry that could produce a cheaper alternative to gasoline. At the same time, his research is an example of how sometimes innovations can pop up in unusual places.

HUTCHESON: That you can come through and take something that you've been studying for a long period of time, continue to study, but yet realize that the applications of this are huge and could be life-changing in terms of what we use to make our energy.

CURRY: An innovative, alternative form of producing biofuel inspired by a tiny bug that one day could have a huge impact at the pump.

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