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Consolidated bioprocessing: a revolution in biofuels development

by Jeremy Fordham <>

In 1956 M. King Hubbert, a geoscientist working with the Shell research laboratory, developed a controversial theory of petroleum production that rocked the oil industry. The model, known today as the Hubbert Curve, was widely criticized at the time. In a nutshell it predicted that overall petroleum production in the U.S. would peak sometime between the mid-sixties and early seventies. Scientists and oil speculators thought he was crazy and dismissed his model as irrelevant and poorly constructed, especially because Hubbert was reluctant to publish the methods and equations behind his theory. Then, in late 1970, United States petroleum production actually did peak. A few years later the U.S. entered an energy crisis characterized by high gas prices and a frenetic rush to find new resources in places like Mexico and elsewhere.
Lots of people mistake the actual implications of Hubbert’s theory, which he later developed to predict a world petroleum production peak around the year 2000. Since the oil industry is fragile and dependent on things like wars and the shape of the global economy, this prediction is subject to much more variability and fluctuation than normal. What is certain, however, is that mass implementation of renewable energy systems is a viable alternative to consuming depletable petroleum-based resources. In the last couple decades, renewable energy initiatives have skyrocketed all around the world. Britain recently finished building the world’s largest offshore wind farm, which is a daring and trend-setting achievement for the country. All across the world academic programs have cropped up in attempt to instill interest in this now-blossoming realm. While online PhD programs have yet to come to full scale, places like Loughborough University in the U.K. are helping people gain extensive and professional expertise in this field from their own homes. Renewable energy is an infectious ideal that has effectively swept the entire world.

Biofuels are a particularly interesting form of green energy because they don’t require the construction of a secondary infrastructure for use. You can take biodiesel created from algae and put it directly in your gas tank, just like ethanol derived from corn-based biomass can be added directly to gasoline to improve its octane number substantially. Many companies have attempted to take advantage of everything from solar algal systems to gasification reactors that turn woody biomass (woodchips, etc.) into heat and fuel oil. Unfortunately, these reactor systems can cost upwards of $100 million, which is a lot of money to invest in something that hasn’t yet proven its power. Biofuel researchers are working hard to break through the barrier holding this industry back from macroscopic economic viability, and by far one of the most creative, and cost-effective, recent developments is consolidated bioprocessing.

Microorganisms are incredibly abundant and diverse, especially in their metabolic functionality. Consolidated bioprocessing takes advantage of this versatility. To obtain ethanol from a plant like sugarcane, a factory must grind the biomass, heat it up, feed it to microorganisms that can degrade cellulose into glucogenic byproducts and then feed those sugars to another set of microorganisms that can digest them to create ethanol. Cellulose is a crystalline molecule that is critical to a plant cell’s structure, so it is hard for microbes to break down naturally.

This is a very complicated and sensitive bioprocess that requires lots of temperature-controlled reactors and expensive grinding equipment. Consolidated bioprocessing, then takes this entire concept and minimizes the components needed to create ethanol from biomass, by genetically engineering one microorganism to both break down a plant’s cell wall (cellulose) and ferment its constituent sugars. This eliminates the need for an expensive grinder and for separate reactors that contain different microbes with different functions.

The genetics are approached in many interesting ways. A microorganism that is capable of degrading crystalline cellulose but incapable of fermenting its sugars, for instance, could be engineered with alternative metabolic pathways that allow it to use molecules like glucose, xylose and arabinose (components of cellulose) to create ethanol. This is typically done by introducing homologous genes into the target microbe’s DNA that cause it to develop novel fermentation pathways. Alternatively, a microbe that is widely used as a fermentative species (yeast, for instance) could be engineered with genes that give it the ability to break down plant material, which it cannot do naturally. This “super microorganism” would only need one reactor to function optimally in a biofuel production system.

The macroscopic consequences of this difficult genetic manipulation are astounding. Engineers can save millions of dollars by eliminating more than half of the reactors involved in biofuel processes if they create a microbe that can “do it all.” This drives down operating costs and ultimately makes the price tag on a biofuels plant that much more bearable. Companies like the Mascoma Corporation and Qteros (who actually discovered their own microbe in the wild) are working rigorously to develop technologies that rely on consolidated bioprocessing to make biofuel production worth the cost. They are making great progress.

The USDA is also actively involved in this research, so it will be interesting to see where things go in the next decade. Solar and wind technologies are still very expensive and bulky, so biofuels have an outstanding opportunity to outshine them as a resource whose implementation will be relatively transparent.

While nobody knows the exact date and time that petroleum will run out, the overarching point is that someday it will be gone, whether it’s 30 or 300 years from now. Biofuels have an opportunity to slow this depletion and are sure to come to the forefront of renewable energy in time, so be on the watch.


New (updated) Ethanol Resources

A new update to a prime Ethanol resource has been established. Those interested in creating your own alcohol fuel (or beverage) will find this a very valuable resource, Enjoy!


Podcast 4-5-10 Biofuels: Ethanol

This week’s podcast continues the series on biofuels, and spotlights ethanol fuel as a replacement for gasoline. Brazil has replaced their gasoline economy with ethanol from sugarcane. Here in the USA we have many crops that can be used like corn, potatoes, sugar beets, etc. Any sugar or starchy crop can be used. Hear more on our podcast, and follow the additional informational links on making and using ethanol.


The best resources for biofuel info

In our travels, we have come across some amazing resources for learning about biofuels. I will list our favorites below for a few of the major types of biofuels we have experience in:

Ethanol – Alcohol Can Be A Gas

BioMethane – The Complete Biogas Handbook

WVO – Sliding Home

Biodiesel – Biodiesel Homebrew Guide

Wood – A Guide to Residential Wood Heating (free)

These are not the only good resources out there, just some of our favorites. Please discuss these and your favorites below in the comments section.


Can you make, and drive on, your own ethanol fuel?

Can you drive your car on ethanol? Yes it is possible! We used to have a small fuel producers permit. We made ethanol and powered a lawnmower with it. The following resources will help you build a still, produce ethanol, and modify a carbureted vehicle (VW) for ethanol use. You may even be able to fuel some of the newer flex fuel vehicles that are becoming widely available.


Making ethanol, and converting engines to run on it

There has been a high interest in the last few years in making your own fuel. This can range from converting diesels to run on used fryer oil, to making ethanol, and converting gasoline engines to run on it. We have also been converting gas engines to run on propane and methane. For information on how you can make and use your own fuels, see


ESSN – July Issue

The July issue of Energy Self Sufficiency Newsletter goes live tonight at midnight. Make sure you download it, as it’s bigger and better than ever. Ethanol, Efficient Lighting, Biodiesel, Methane, Gardening, and much much more.

Advertisers – Please get your ads in before July 15th for the August issue!

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Ethyl Esters – Biodiesel from Ethanol

Tonight Rich Reilly from BiodieselWarehouse and I made 3 batches of biodiesel from ethanol. Using our soon to be famous Bacardi Technique (no Patent Pending), we processed the following batches:

Batch 1 was from 200 proof ethanol and new soybean oil.
Batch 2 was from 180 proof ethanol and new soybean oil.
Batch 3 was from 200 proof ethanol and used fryer oil.

Batch 1 is separating nicely, batch 2 doesn’t seem to be processing, batch 3 is too early to tell. More tomorrow on the results and the methods used.

Pictures and dialogue will be posted on our wiki over the next few days.

That’s biodiesel above the 100 ml mark, glycerin below it.

Creative Commons License

This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 2.5 License.

For more info, see Girl Mark’s Biodiesel Homebrew Guide