The world’s next fuel source may be growing in a field near you
Distinguished Professor of Microbiology
Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences
To most people, the price of gas can seem a lot like the weather-gripe about it all you want, but the spinning numbers at the pump are as much under your control as a storm front.
About two decades ago, though, a microbiologist named Lonnie Ingram took a different perspective.
“It was 1985, there had just been oil crisis after oil crisis,” Ingram said. “My colleagues and I had just been working in fairly basic science, but I said to myself, ÔI know we can change this.’”
Now, after years of refinement and hard work, the resulting technology could be the wind of change for many energy demands.
Ingram and his University of Florida colleagues developed an economically viable way to produce cellulosic ethanol-a clean-burning fuel that begins as the ilk of yard waste and orange peels, but could end up replacing much of the country’s need for gasoline.
In a matter of months, Ingram’s process will be carried out in demonstration plants in Louisiana and Florida, and has already proven itself profitable in a Japanese facility.
“For the most part, I think, we’re done asking ‘what if?’” Ingram said. “Now, it’s just a matter of getting how we’re going to do this so that it really makes a difference.”
In April 2007, Ingram advised President George Bush on the potential benefits of cellulosic ethanol. In August, he was one of three researchers appointed to Florida Gov. Charlie Crist’s energy action team.
Economic feasibility is at the core of Ingram’s approach. Most ethanol used as fuel today comes from a moonshine-like process of churning and fermenting the sugar-rich corn crops for a simple brew of ethyl alcohol (aka ethanol). Unfortunately, the value of corn as food makes this ethanol too pricy to compete with petroleum.
Cellulosic ethanol doesn’t stem from the low-hanging-fruit approach of converting sugar-rich crops. Instead, it’s derived from the tough fibers of woody and indigestible plant materials-stuff that typically becomes trash in landfills.
To tackle the task, Ingram’s process takes a tip from cows. Bovines and other ruminants have microbes in their stomachs that break fibrous material down into digestible sugars.
In work that earned him membership within the National Academy of Sciences, Ingram integrated a harmless form of E. coli with characteristics from other bacteria-such as one used for making tequila-to produce a microbe that could reliably convert biomass trash into ethanol-worthy treasure. All in all, the cellulosic ethanol could cost about a nickel a gallon.
In 1991, this technology was singled out to receive the nation’s 5 millionth landmark patent. In total, Ingram now holds 15 U.S. patents, 10 patents in other nations and has 23 more pending worldwide.
Massachusetts-based Verenium Corp. now holds exclusive rights to use and license the technology. The company is building a 1.4 million gallon-per-year demonstration plant in Jennings, La.
With a $20 million recently awarded by the Florida legislature, UF is laying plans for its own in-state demonstration plant.
In late July 2007, Verenium presented its first royalty check to the University of Florida from the proceeds of a 1.3 million liter-per-year cellulosic ethanol plant in Osaka, Japan.
“This is all still just the beginning, and I’m lucky enough to see it,” Ingram said. According to one Department of Energy estimate, by 2030 cellulosic ethanol technology such as Ingram’s could supply the nation with more than 90 billion gallons of fuel ethanol-roughly a third of its projected gasoline demand.