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Bacteria Could Transform Ethanol Sector

A compost bacteria bred by a British company could be set to transform both the profitability and environmental credentials of the U. S. ethanol industry.

“The application of our technology results in the greening of corn ethanol,” Hamish Curran, chief executive officer of TMO Renewables Ltd. said in an interview Sept. 15.

The company provides an industrial unit, or plug-in, which can be attached to a biofuel plant to boost output by recycling a byproduct of the initial fuel run.

“If they take a plug-in from TMO, corn ethanol becomes an advanced biofuel,” he said, referring to biofuels which provide savings of at least 50 per cent in greenhouse gas emissions compared with mineral petroleum.

TMO has developed an industrial process built around common bacteria developed from a strain found in compost heaps which can be retrofitted to U. S. corn ethanol plants.

Curran said the TMO technology uses a byproduct of the U. S. corn ethanol industry, distillers grains (DDGS), converting it into additonal ethanol and boosting production levels by about 15 per cent.

He said U. S. corn ethanol plants also currently use large amounts of energy drying the DDGS before selling it as fodder for livestock.

The TMO process uses the material while still wet, allowing substantial energy savings as well as additional output, raising profit margins by 50 to 60 per cent, he said.

Biofuels are currently made mainly from food crops such as grains, vegetable oils and sugar cane, which has led to debate about whether they might help to drive up food prices.

They are seen as a way to reduce emissions of the greenhouse gases believed to contribute to climate change but environmental groups have questioned the green credentials of some processes, including U. S. corn-derived ethanol.

TRANSPORT CHALLENGE

Many firms want to develop so-called second-generation fuels which use non-edible products such as corn stover, the stalks and leaves of the corn plant, or even municipal waste. It has proven challenging to find ways to transport sufficient volumes of these products to make commercial quantities of fuel.

“There is a huge supply chain question to be answered. How do you move millions of tonnes of biomass from the field to factory,” Curran said

“While we are solving that problem, which will take some years, we can build these plug-ins and make cellulosic ethanol a reality,” he said.

Curran said 25 owners of U. S. ethanol plants had expressed interest in the process and full-scale industrial trials had been conducted for four of them at the company’s demonstration plant in Dunsfold Park, just south of London.

He said TMO was working with ethanol producers to secure federal and state grants as well as loan guarantees for the plug-ins.

“That is quite a lengthy process. Sometime in the next few months we will see a closure (deal concluded) I expect and then the build time is between 12 and 18 months,” Curran said.

Curran said the company had also received interest from China with a delegation set to visit later this month centred around using the TMO process to turn products such as rice straw or wood waste into fuel.

He was less optimistic about outlook in Britain.

“There is no prospect for investing in the biofuel market in the U. K. at the moment,” he said, adding a scaling back of British government targets for biofuels had put the industry in a “go slow mode.”

Dunsfold Park, the site of the company’s demonstration plant, is a former Canadian Air Force base which is now perhaps best known as the home of British motoring television program “Top Gear.”

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