Inside Mascoma's ethanol-making bug lab

With backing from GM, ethanol start-up hosts a tour of its biotech lab, where scientists are genetically engineering microorganisms that they hope will bring a breakthrough in ethanol production.

Martin LaMonica Former Staff writer, CNET News
Martin LaMonica is a senior writer covering green tech and cutting-edge technologies. He joined CNET in 2002 to cover enterprise IT and Web development and was previously executive editor of IT publication InfoWorld.
Martin LaMonica
3 min read

LEBANON, N.H.--Mascoma is a biotech firm engineering its way into the energy business.

At its core is a staff of brainy Phds with expertise in microbial technology and cellulosic ethanol. But rather than design pharmaceuticals or crop seeds, Mascoma scientists are researching ways to make a cheaper fuel.

Its part of an industry-wide race to make ethanol from non-food sources, such as wood chips and grasses, at commercial scale.

Click on the image to see a photo gallery of Mascoma's lab. This image shows how a micro-organism is attracted to cellulose. Mascoma is genetically engineering an organism to metabolize cellulose and make ethanol. Mascoma

If done right, cellulosic ethanol promises to be far better than the current feedstock--corn--from a commercial and environmental standpoint.

There are many techniques for making cellulosic ethanol, including gasification or multi-step processes that use enzymes and yeasts. But Mascoma is among only a handful pursuing its particular microbial technology path, its scientists say.

Click for gallery

Mascoma's goal is to streamline the process by genetically engineering a microorganism that can metabolize cellulose and produce ethanol in a single step. That will cut out the need for adding costly enzymes, its scientists say.

Scientists scour the earth for naturally occurring bacteria and other microorganisms and bring them to their lab. There, Mascoma employees try to isolate certain characteristics, such as rapidly metabolizing cellulose.

Then they genetically combine those traits in a single microorganism to convert pretreated plant matter into ethanol.

The company has a pilot plant that uses wood chips to make ethanol in Rome, New York. Five to 20 metric tons of wood chips or other feedstock yield 100,000 to 500,000 gallons of ethanol per year.

A commercial-scale plant in Michigan using wood chips as a feedstock is scheduled to be operating in 2012. Eventually, it hopes to make ethanol at $1.50 a gallon, according to company executives.

Making of a supermicrobe
On Friday, Mascoma, which was founded by Dartmouth College professors, hosted a tour of its labs, housed in the Dartmouth Regional Technology Center (up the road from Mascoma Lake).

It also announced that investor General Motors' director of Global Energy Systems, Andreas M. Lippert, has joined Mascoma's scientific board. GM invested in Mascoma's $61 million series C round in May of this year, along with refiner Marathon Oil.

Lippert says that its investment in Mascoma and another ethanol company Coskata are meant to accelerate development of cost-effective cellulosic ethanol.

He said Mascoma's consolidated bioprocessing technology is an attempt at a breakthrough, compared to other processes. But it's not purely theoretical.

"This is within sight. We know how to do the genetic engineering--they are actively working towards that now. So there is some technical development that's needed but it's not a miracle we're waiting for," Lippert said.

Lippert said GM expects that industrial-scale cellulosic ethanol will begin flowing around 2011. Government mandates are set so that corn ethanol will level off around 2015 to be replaced by "advanced" biofuels, such as cellulosic ethanol.

Ethanol being produced now is blended with gasoline at 10 percent concentration. But for cellulosic ethanol to make a bigger impact on gasoline consumption, there needs to be a build-out of fueling stations for E85, a blend of 85 percent ethanol, Lippert said.

There are about 1,700 E85 stations in the U.S. right now, only about 1 percent of the total. To absorb that anticipated boost in ethanol, Mascoma and GM are assuming that there will be construction of more E85 stations and flex-fuel vehicles that can run on gas or E85.

"There are big hills and little hills," said Lee Lynd, Mascoma's co-founder and chief science officer. "In the scheme of things, this is a little hill."

Lynd said the company does not expect problems to arise from its genetically modified organisms. He said that any effects could be tested and that it will be used in a controlled environment.