Using Bugs to Make Ethanol for Fuel

Wired News ran a story about an innovative company in Canada.
Ottawa-based Iogen is already producing ethanol by exploiting the destructive nature of the fungus Trichoderma reesei, which caused the “jungle rot” of tents and uniforms in the Pacific theater during World War II.

Through a genetic modification known as directed evolution, Iogen has souped up fungus microbes so they spew copious amounts of digestive enzymes to break down straw into sugars. From there, a simple fermentation — which brewers have been doing for centuries — turns sugar into alcohol.

Now the company is ready to build a $350 million, commercial-scale factory in Canada or Idaho Falls, Idaho, next year if it can secure financing — long one of the biggest stumbling blocks to bringing the stuff to gas pumps.

While conventional lenders are wary of investing in a new technology, the company is banking on winning a loan from the U.S. Department of Energy. Even under a best-case scenario, Passmore said Iogen won’t be producing commercial quantities until 2009.

Other significant hurdles include how to widely distribute the fuel; getting auto manufacturers to make engines that will use it; and persuading gas stations to install ethanol pumps. There’s hope that funding shortfalls and the remaining technological problems such as how to ship large amounts of ethanol will be overcome in the next few years.

Despite the challenges, Bush’s endorsement and advancements in the field have re-energized alternative energy types. While no commercial interest has advanced as far as Iogen, other biotech companies are engineering bacteria to spit out similar sugar-converting enzymes, and academics are pursuing more far-out sources.