08 July 2010

Fueling Cars with Feces

By Dan Schank

A microbe has been found that can break down anything that contains cellulose and turn it into ethanol.

In 1996, Thomas Warnick was exploring the Quabbin Reservoir in Belchertown, Massachusetts, when he came across a tiny microbe with a big name—Clostridium phytofermentans. Warnick, a microbiology research assistant at the University of Massachusetts Amherst, was sent to the reservoir to find micro-organisms that could break down plant cellulose. His boss, Susan Leschine, had searched areas as diverse as Brazil, France and Hawaii for these organisms, but she’d never seen anything quite like what Warnick brought back.

The “Q microbe,” as it came to be known, is no ordinary bug. It can ingest—and produce ethanol from—virtually anything that contains cellulose, including human and animal sewage waste. So Qteros, the company Leschine founded to exploit the microbe’s abilities commercially, struck up a partnership with Applied CleanTech (ACT), an Israeli firm that generates alternative energy from wastewater solids. ACT’s sewage-recycling system transforms solids into “recyllose.” It turns out the Q microbe has a sweet tooth for recyllose, converting the cotton-like substance into ethanol for use in automobiles.

Jeff Hausthor, Qteros’ lead researcher, imagines a uniquely local market for this new biofuel. Obviously, waste materials are a burden to farms and municipalities, both financially and ecologically. But by putting the Q microbe to work, small-scale ethanol plants situated around sewage processing plants could become a reality.

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