SunEthanol, a company that is developing microbes to produce cellulosic ethanol, announced on Nov. 18 that has raised $25 million in Series B financing and that it is changing its name to Qteros Inc. The funding will allow the company to scale up its process from the pilot plant to commercial operations, and hire additional engineers and scientists, company officials said. Plans call for a demonstration plant by 2010 and commercial production in 2011.
The two year old Hadley, MA company is developing the Q Microbe™ (Clostridium phytofermentans), a lollipop-shaped microscopic organism that the company claims has unique properties that make it ideally suited to the production of cellulosic ethanol from a variety of non-food plant materials. Dr. Susan Leschine, Qteros’ Chief Scientist and co-founder, is the University of Massachusetts, Amherst microbiology professor who, nearly 10 years ago, first collected a sample of the Q Microbe™ near the Quabbin Reservoir in Massachusetts. The Q Microbe, was nearly perfect for the job, as found in nature, with an unusual ability to dynamically adjusts to the type of organic matter it’s processing; the company is only engaged in “classical genetic engineering”, which basically means selective breeding.
Currently, throughout the industry, the largest cost components are the feedstock and the enzymes used for the bioconversion. The Complete Cellulose Conversion (C3) process (formerly the Q process) can use very low cost feedstocks and does not use any enzymes. With only one-step of bioconversion, the C3 process is much more efficient—and less costly—than other conversions now in use. Its Q Microbe™ simplifies the process, eliminating the need for a separate enzymatic breakdown step. Instead of the conventional enzyme and yeast process, C3 technology consolidates multiple steps into a single bioconversion step, resulting in a lower cost of production. This process is less costly than conventional corn starch–production technology and allows for the use of many types of plant material.
In the C3 process, the Q Microbe™ simultaneously decomposes and ferments both cellulose and hemicellulosic plant material to ethanol in a single-step. This microbe not only eliminates the need for costly enzymes, it simplifies the entire ethanol production process, allowing for pre-treatments that are easier on the environment.
The C3 process is expected to be competitive with gasoline once the licensed plants are in full production sometime in 2011. As Qteros gains scale-up knowledge from the successful operation of pilot and demonstration plants, they expect to further reduce costs.
Qteros plans on licensing its technology, rather than being involved in design and construction.
In August the company announced it was collaborating with MBI International, a wholly-owned subsidiary of the Michigan State University Foundation, to scale-up a fermentation method for producing ethanol from non-food agricultural feedstocks. MBI is a Lansing, Michigan biotechnology firm specializing in fermentation process development and scale-up. MBI also develops biomass processing technologies.
Currently, MBI is actively scaling-up AFEX (ammonia fiber expansion), a promising biomass pretreatment technology developed at Michigan State University.
"We believe that AFEX-treated biomass could be an effective feedstock for our Q-microbe in producing cellulosic ethanol. AFEX opens up biomass cell-wall structures, thereby increasing the effectiveness of digestion."
--Dr. Parekh, VP of Research and Development, Qteros
Qteros seems to have discovered a microbe similar to the one that Mascoma has been developing, theirs found in nature vs a genetically engineered one by Mascoma. Qteros has used much less capital, $30 million in equity and several 10's of million dollars in government grants and contracts while Mascoma has received a combined total of about $250 million. Qteros has been in existance only two years vs three years for Mascoma.
Between these two companies and others in the cellulosic ethanol business, it seems that we will have demonstated one or more cost competitive, viable cellulosic ethanol process that will produce ethanol from non-food materials by 2012, if not sooner. This should finally permit droping subsidies on ethanol and dropping the tarrif on imported ethanol.
Between renewable fuels, electric cars, wind power, solar power and higher milage vehicles we will have the technologies to eliminate our dependence on oil imports. When these technologies will have an effect on imports of oil is not possible to predict, but I would venture our imports should noticably decrease by 2020 and could be eliminated in the 2030-2050 time period. Many factors other than technolgy, such as the price of oil and governmental actions, will, of course, be a major influence on the timing. I would also venture that we will have severe supply constraints on oil by 2015 and that all possible efforts should be made to speed the implimentation of these technologies, especially renewable fuels and electric vehicles.