A type of bacteria taken from the Chesapeake may eventually help prevent pollution from reaching the Bay.
Researchers at the University of Maryland in March said they had developed a new process to convert biomass material into ethanol using a bacteria discovered two decades ago that decomposes marsh grasses in the Bay.
The bacterium, Saccharophagus degradans, creates a mixture of enzymes that break down almost any source of biomass into sugars, which can then be converted into ethanol.
"We believe we have the most economical way to make novel, efficient enzymes needed to make biofuels from cellulosic materials," said Steve Hutcheson, a professor in the College of Chemical and Life Sciences, who made the discovery with colleague Ron Weiner, also a U-M professor.
Hutcheson is the founder of Zymetis Inc., a start-up company spun off from U-M. Zymetis is teaming with Fiberight, a regional company that processes cellulosic waste products, to establish a full-scale facility to produce cellulosic ethanol by the end of the year.
Right now, almost all of the ethanol in the United States comes from corn, which has a high sugar content that is readily available for fermentation-and therefore readily transformed into ethanol.
But making ethanol from corn is problematic because it provides a relatively modest gain in energy relative to what is needed to produce it.
It's also a threat to the Bay because corn uses nutrients inefficiently, especially nitrogen, leaving large amounts in the soil where it can end up in local streams and the Chesapeake, where it fuels algae blooms.
Last year, an estimated 180,000 additional acres of corn were grown in the Bay watershed-enough to increase nitrogen runoff by nearly 3 million pounds. That could increase in the future as demand for ethanol grows to meet federal fuel mandates.
Because of such problems, many regional-and national-leaders have hoped that future ethanol demand could be met largely through cellulosic materials.
Cellulosic ethanol comes from "biomass"-everything from forestry byproducts to cornstalks to garbage. It can also come from fast-growing crops such as switchgrass.
Much of the cellulosic material in those products are complex carbohydrates, which can be broken down into fermentable sugars and then made into ethanol. The problem is separating cellulosic material from the lignin which provides much of the plant structure. Although doable, the added step sharply increases production costs.
But Saccharophagus degradans, which translates into "sugar eater," produces dozens of enzymes that can digest the cellulose plant material and turn it into sugars faster, more simply and at a lower cost than other techniques, according to Hutcheson. The bacterium is difficult to find in nature-it's not been seen in the Bay since its discovery-but is easily reproduced in the lab.
In March, Gov. Martin O'Malley presented Zymetis with a $50,000 Department of Business and Economic Development grant to support its work.
It still remains to be seen whether enzymes from the bacterium will produce cellulosic ethanol that is cost-competitive with corn at large scales.
Regional leaders have emphasized the importance of developing cellulosic ethanol to the Bay cleanup, not only because increased corn production can harm the Chesapeake, but because alternate sources of cellulosic material, such as switchgrass, could help cleanup efforts.
The native prairie grass produces far more energy per acre than corn, requires little fertilization, and has an extensive root system which dramatically reduces erosion and nutrient runoff.
If 300,000 acres of switchgrass were planted, the amount of nitrogen runoff could be reduced by 8.3 million pounds, according to estimates from a Chesapeake Bay Commission report, "Biofuels and the Bay." If 1 million acres of switchgrass were planted, nitrogen runoff could be reduced by 25.4 million pounds.
At the Chesapeake Bay Executive Council meeting in December, the commission, which represents state legislatures, and Pennsylvania Gov. Ed Rendell agreed to schedule a workshop this year to promote cellulosic ethanol development.
The energy bill passed by Congress last year calls for 36 billion gallons of ethanol by 2022, with 21 billion gallons coming from cellulosic sources. The bill calls for 9 billion gallons of ethanol this year, up from 6.5 billion gallons in 2007. Almost all of that will come from corn, but the bill sets ever-increasing annual goals for cellulosic ethanol with the goal for it to be cost-competitive with corn ethanol by 2012.