“We’ve reached a point where we know the Q likes the Recyllose,” says Hausthor. “We know how to pretreat the material and get it ready for the Q to eat, fork and knife, and we’re comfortable where we are on the technical side.”
NREL’s McMillan says the group’s results are encouraging, but he cautions that in an actual wastewater treatment plant, sewage may harbor organisms similar to the Q microbe that may be eager to compete for cellulose. “Sewage is dirty stuff, laden with all kinds of microbial activity,” says McMillan. “There might be a big biological background that might compete with the Q microbe, and everyone could join the party, the sugar-fest, making a lot of stuff you didn’t want to make.”
The companies plan to license the technology to wastewater treatment plants and municipalities. Qteros also just announced a location for a new $3.2 million pilot plant in western Massachusetts where the company will explore ways to pretreat feedstocks to get them ready for the Q microbe to convert into ethanol. Eventually, Qteros plans to build a plant with an integrated biorefinery where the company will introduce the Q microbe to a number of feedstocks to produce ethanol at a larger scale.
The biofuels company Mascoma is also using microorganisms to turn waste into cellulosic ethanol. Justin van Rooyen, director of business development at Mascoma, says the partnership between sewage and ethanol is a promising one.
“At first glance it seems strange, but it makes sense,” says van Rooyen. “There are a lot of assets to a wastewater treatment facility. There is already waste disposal on site, and the feedstock is collected in one place. It works as a great demonstration. Whether it will make good business remains to be seen.”