Dartmouth researchers develop new way to make ethanol

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(Host) Researchers at Dartmouth College have discovered a way to produce large amounts of ethanol from trees and grasses.

The scientists say the price of the fuel would be competitive with ethanol made from corn – and with traditional gasoline.

VPR’s Ross Sneyd reports.

(Sneyd) Ethanol is essentially a grain alcohol made from plants.

Advocates say it has great potential to replace the gasoline that powers car and truck engines.

It has its detractors, though, because up to now corn has been the plant of choice for large ethanol producers.

Critics say cellulosic ethanol is a better alternative because it’s made from wood and grasses – things that humans don’t eat.

Lee Lynd of Dartmouth College says the problem has been that it’s much easier, technologically, to make ethanol from corn than from a piece of wood.

(Lynd) “The main thing that’s in our way, that prevents us from doing that, is the cost of converting that cellulosic biomass into something reactive, and in our case, sugars.”

(Sneyd) Sugars are necessary to the production of ethanol. It takes more energy to break down wood and grass into those sugars.

Lynd and scientists at Mascoma Corporation in New Hampshire say they’ve tackled that problem.

They have genetically engineered a bacterium that works at high temperatures to get the sugar out of wood so it can be distilled into fuel.

They published the results of their research this week in the scientific journal, Proceedings of the National Academy of Science.

Lynd says their method could help to wean fuel producers off of food crops.

(Lynd) “It’s extremely difficult to envision feeding the world and using food crops such as corn to looking toward the future to produce enough biofuels to be even remotely close to being a primary energy carrier for transportation. I don’t think I know anybody who believes you could get there on corn, but I know people who believe you can get there on cellulosics.”

(Sneyd) Lynd says more development will be needed before the new bacterium could be used for commercial production of cellulosic ethanol.

But he says Mascoma Corporation has begun that work.

For VPR News, I’m Ross Sneyd.

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