March 12, 2008 A new process developed by two professors at the University of Maryland could mean the ability to convert large volumes of all kinds of plant products, from leftover brewer's mash to paper trash, into ethanol and other biofuel alternatives to gasoline. When fully operational, the process could potentially lead to the production of 75 billion gallons of carbon-neutral ethanol each year.
Developed by Steve Hutcheson and Ron Weiner, professors of cell biology and molecular genetics, the process is the foundation of their incubator company Zymetis. The Zymetis process can make ethanol and other biofuels from many different types of plants and plant waste called cellulosic sources. Cellulosic biofuels can be made from non- grain plant sources such as waste paper, brewing byproducts, leftover agriculture products, including straw, corncobs and husks, and energy crops such as switchgrass. In response to growing concern about crop-based biofuels, large-scale efforts are being made to develop cellulosic ethanol production technologies.
The secret to the Zymetis process is a Chesapeake Bay marsh grass bacterium, S. degradans. Hutcheson found that the bacterium has an enzyme that could quickly break down plant materials into sugar, which can then be converted to biofuel. The Zymetis researchers were unable to isolate the Bay bacterium again in nature, but they discovered how to produce the enzyme in their own laboratories. The result was Ethazyme, which degrades the tough cell walls of cellulosic materials and breaks down the entire plant material into bio-fuel ready sugars in one step, at a significantly lower cost and with fewer caustic chemicals than current methods. This new process is particularly significant as it has the potential to makes affordable ethanol production from waste materials a reality.