SunEthanol seeks funding for fuel-making bug

Ethanol-from-microbes company is seeking an additional $20 million and is hiring a new CEO from DuPont.

SunEthanol, a development-stage cellulosic ethanol company, is looking to raise $20 million in venture funding and is bringing in a new CEO.

The University of Massachusetts spin-off is planning on announcing a CEO who will join the company from DuPont on Tuesday, said Jef Sharp, the current president and CEO who will stay on with the company. Sharp said he will likely be chief marketing officer and has brought on a new CEO to speed up product development.

In addition, SunEthanol is in the process of raising a second round of funding to ramp up its operations. It currently has under 20 employees.

SunEthanol, which was launched last year, is developing a process for converting cellulose in woodchips or grasses into ethanol.

It's one of dozens of large and small companies working on technologies to make liquid fuels from nonfood feedstocks. There are different approaches that include thermochemical processes or enzymes to convert plant matter into sugars which are then fermented to make ethanol.

SunEthanol has a one-step process that uses a naturally occurring microbe that essentially eats the cellulose in plants and then ferments it into alcohol, explained Sharp.

In its labs, it has improved the output of its process from 4 grams per liter less than a year ago to 25 grams per liter, which is faster than anticipated, he said.

But the company is still a long way from manufacturing ethanol and delivering it to filling station pumps.

It intends to make a pilot plant later this year and it received a Department of Energy grant to build a larger, 2.5 million gallon per year demonstration facility.

Sharp, who I met up with at the CSI Clean Technology conference in Boston, said that he is wary of over-hyping SunEthanol's technology, but he thinks the one-step microbial process will prove to be cost-effective than existing alternatives.

"This is a better solution over enzymes because it's one step and because it's cheap," he said.

SunEthanol's hiring of a CEO from DuPont is another sign of people from larger companies going to technology-oriented energy start-ups, or established energy companies investing in start-ups.

General Motors, for example, has invested in two cellulosic ethanol start-ups, Mascoma and Coskata.

 

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