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Startup Qteros, based in Hadley, MA, and formerly known as SunEthanol, thinks that it holds the key to finally making cellulosic ethanol cost-effective. It’s a bacterium called the Q microbe, or, more properly, Clostridium phytofermentans, and the company claims that it can eliminate the costly enzymes normally used to turn cellulose into ethanol.

Cellulosic ethanol is usually made with enzymes to break down the fibrous cell walls of cellulose into simple sugars, then with yeast to ferment the sugars into ethanol. Qteros expects to simplify the two steps into one and dramatically reduce the cost of making cellulosic ethanol using its bacteria, which naturally eats cellulose and produces ethanol as waste.

The enzymatic degradation of cellulose in conventional processes accounts for at least 20 percent of the overall cost of making cellulosic ethanol, says Qteros CEO William Frey, who was the business director for DuPont’s biofuels program before joining the startup in June. “Certainly enzymes have been the Achilles’ heel of [cellulosic ethanol],” he says.

Qteros says that its bacteria can convert many different types of feedstock, including starch, corn cobs, sugarcane bagasse, and woody biomass, directly into ethanol. And while most organisms that can break down cellulose–including common yeast–can only digest six-carbon sugars, the Q can digest five-carbon sugars too, meaning that it can produce more ethanol from the same material, Frey says.

In November, Qteros announced that it had raised $25 million in its second round of funding from Venrock, Battery Ventures, oil giant BP, billionaire financier George Soros’s Soros Fund Management, Camros Capital, and Long River Ventures. Combined with a $3.6 million from Series A funding and several grants, the company has raised more than $30 million.

The company plans to use its new cash to build a pilot plant, which it expects to begin operating next year. Qteros also plans to build demonstration plants in 2010 and hopes to have commercial plants using its technology up and running by 2011. Qteros doesn’t intend to build factories itself but will license its technology–including the microbe and the processing–to customers that want to produce ethanol.

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Credit: Qteros

Tagged: Business, Energy, biofuel, cellulosic ethanol, enzymes, cellulose, Qteros, Q microbe, sugars

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