Various Publications, Winter 1999


After some fits and starts, Arkenol Inc. is now looking to genetic engineering to help bolster the economics of its biomass ethanol production plans. The company recently made a deal with the Department of Energy (DOE) to work together on a newly altered bacteria that may more efficiently help turn biomass into ethanol.

Arkenol and DOE's National Renewable Energy Laboratory (NREL) forged a cooperative research and development agreement to develop new strains of Zymonomas mobilis bacteria for use in making ethanol from rice straw. The altered bacteria can ferment five and six-carbon sugars simultaneously, thus increasing the biomass material convertible to ethanol by 40%, NREL said.

The agreement also calls for Arkenol to pick-up 20% of the $400,000 research cost while it retains licensing rights to use the bacteria at its planned Sacramento plant.

Arkenol is moving ahead with its long-delayed Sacramento-area ethanol plant, where the research and development will proceed. At one time, the plant was expected to produce some 12.5 million gals/yr of ethanol, but according to Arkenol Vice President of Project Development Michael Fatigati plans are now for about 4 million gals/yr.

"The low price of ethanol forced us to look into reconfiguring the plant to produce a second product," explained Fatigati. "Citric acid can deliver about 4 to 5 times the revenue, but it reduces the sugar for ethanol production."

However, Fatigati is optimistic that the new bacteria will make a difference. "In trials so far it has been exemplary," he said. This is key because feedstock for the plant is expected to be the plentiful supplies of rice straw leftover from farming in the area. "We're looking at faster -- therefore cheaper -- ethanol production from rice straw."

Rice farmers in the Sacramento Valley currently burn 200,000 acres of straw each year, which hampers air quality. A recent report by the California Air Resources Board recommended continuance of state programs to fund grants and tax incentives for alternatives to burning, such as ethanol production.