5th December – Emissions
See Tampa Bay Times on Mercedes emissions scandal.
GAINESVILLE – Dr. Lonnie Ingram is something of a legend in the lab.
Almost 20 years ago, the 57-year-old University of Florida microbiologist made a discovery that earned him – and two colleagues – a rare distinction.
In 1991, the university was awarded the nation’s 5-millionth patent in a special ceremony at the Commerce Department. It recognized ground breaking scientific work by Ingram’s team with a bacteria that could convert plant waste into ethanol, a cleaner-burning substitute for gasoline.
The invention was hailed as a potential revolution in the fuel industry. Although ethanol was already being made from corn and sugarcane, Ingram’s method was potentially far cheaper since it used waste material.
It also fit neatly into the new energy policy of then-President George Bush, announced two months earlier in the wake of the Persian Gulf War. Successful ethanol research “could replace the United States’ dependence on foreign oil,” Bush told Congress.
Ingram’s new organism, a harmless strain of the E. coli bacteria, was immediately licensed by a company seeking to market the technology.
Then … nothing happened.
Now, almost as suddenly as Ingram’s invention fizzled, the buzz on ethanol is back.
Major politicians, energy policy experts and some of the nation’s biggest entrepreneurs are all talking about it, from Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton to Bill Gates. While legislative pressure is building to accelerate biofuel use, private investment is pouring in.
“There is no doubt that in the past year the business world’s view of ethanol has changed dramatically,” said Keith Collins, chief economist with the Agriculture Department.
Ingram’s invention turned out to be the easy part.
It took two years of work by a handful of faculty members and students and no more than 0,000, he said.
By genetically modifying an E. coli bacteria in the lab, Ingram’s team created an organism capable of converting all sugars in plant cells into fuel ethanol. The technology made it possible to use almost any organic biomass – from corn stalks and straw to yard trimmings and forestry wastes – to make fuel.
“We were very successful and very early,” said Ingram, who has spent his entire 32-year teaching career at the University of Florida. “We did it at a time that no one said it would work. Now it seems relatively simple.”
Making it profitable was far harder.
The company that bought the patent had high hopes the new technology could substantially replace gasoline. But it was ruined by a company scandal.
Another Boston-based company, BC International, picked up the license from bankruptcy court in 1998. But, it also struggled to launch the concept commercially, despite an -million grant from the Department of Energy.
The main problem: how to break down the biomass into a soluble form that the bacteria can begin to work on. Because of its fibrous nature, cellulosic biomass is tougher to degrade than corn or sugar cane, adding to the expense. The cost-efficiency of that engineering process has confounded entrepreneurs.
Meanwhile, research at Ingram’s lab went on. Faculty and staff members at the center continued to experiment on fresh E. coli cultures. Extra genes were added to improve the organism’s yields of alcohol, and to speed up fermentation.
Ethanol production from corn continued to grow steadily, mostly in the Midwest where the fuel market provided a vital new outlet for struggling farmers – aided by federal mandates and subsidies.
But, there was still no commercial breakthrough for Ingram’s technology.
“It’s a matter of raising enough money on terms you can live with to build a first-of-a-kind plant,” he said. Would anyone take that kind of capital risk before the engineering was refined?
Then gradually something began to change. Experts put it down to a confluence of factors: part geopolitics, part weather, part capitalism.
The shock of Sept.11, 2001, served as a painful reminder that Middle East oil dependency was not in the nation’s best interests. Evidence of global warming added to the worries about fossil fuels. On top of that came rising gas prices, exacerbated by this year’s ferocious hurricane season.
A stunning array of senior politicians, energy policy experts and venture capitalists all began to pay more attention to the argument for ethanol – and to Ingram’s petri dishes.
In November, Microsoft co-founder Bill Gates invested -million in a California ethanol firm.
Goldman Sachs Group, the big investment banking firm, last month committed itself to investing -billion in projects that generate energy from sources other than oil and gas.
At a “clean tech” forum for venture capital funds in October, Clinton called for a major rethinking of U.S. energy policy.
“The American people want out from under the burden of foreign oil dependence,” she said, advocating a massive federal program to kick start the alternative energy market.
“We are starting to create critical mass,” said Reid Detchon, director of the Energy Future Coalition, a Washington, D.C., alliance of business, labor and environmental groups.
Its backers include several former administration officials, including ex-CIA director James Woolsey, as well as media mogul Ted Turner and Virgin airline founder Richard Branson.
U.S. automakers Ford Motor Co. and General Motors are also rising to the challenge. Last month Ford began a major ad campaign highlighting a new line of 250,000 “ethanol ready” vehicles for 2006.
“The economic balance has shifted,” said Ford spokesman Nick Twork. “That’s one reason why we are more bullish on (ethanol) now.”
Members of Congress have also taken trips to Brazil to see how that country’s auto industry has switched to “flex-fuel” engines, capable of running on gasoline, ethanol or any mix of the two.
“It was a real eye-opener. I was just amazed at what we learned,” said Sen. Mel Martinez, R-Fla., who visited Brazil in August.
Bipartisan legislative proposals are floating in Congress, including one that would require all new cars sold in the United States to run on 85 percent ethanol fuel within a decade.
Clinton wants oil companies to pay an energy fee to “kick start the alternative energy market.”
That’s pretty close to what Ingram has argued for more than a decade. He uses speaking engagements to call for a one-penny tax on every gallon of gasoline to fund alternative energy research.
The money is finally beginning to come his way.
Energy company executives and venture capitalists are beating a path to his lab once more.
On Wednesday, Ingram sat down with three executives from BC International, current holders of the bacteria patent. The company is going ahead with plans to build a 30-million-gallon ethanol plant in Louisiana, using Ingram’s bacteria.
BC International enjoys the financial backing of Vinod Khosla, one of America’s top venture capitalists. Former CEO of Sun Microsystems, he is a reputed billionaire with a Midas touch.
Khosla is one of Ingram’s biggest fans.
“I only invest in state-of-the-art technology,” he said. “This is the next frontier.”
He is convinced that cellulosic technology is close to commercial viability. “It’s 18 months to two years away.”
Others aren’t so sure. Most forecasts believe commercial cellulosic production is at least five years down the road.
Oil men like to think it’s a flash in the pan, a byproduct of consumer panic after a record hurricane season. They urge the government to stay away from mandates for biofuels, to let the market decide.
“We don’t need an ethanol uber alles (over all others) approach,” said Charles Drevna at the National Petrochemcial and Refiners Association.
Khosla and others say the new technology is a perfect fit for Florida. One of the country’s biggest agricultural states, Florida is the third-largest consumer of gasoline behind California and Texas. It imports almost all its fuel.
“Florida should go for this 100 percent,” he said. “Oil dollars will start going to your farmers in rural Florida instead of Saudi Arabia and Exxon. Tell me what’s wrong with this story?”
So far, Florida produces no ethanol. Tampa’s U.S. EnviroFuels plans to build two ethanol plants at Port of Tampa and Port Manatee. “We are building a market,” said company president Bradley Krohn, a former student of Ingram’s at UF. “Ethanol is going to come to Florida eventually.”
Krohn is also involved with another ethanol project in Bartow that won a .9-million federal grant this year to experiment with sweet potatoes, sweet sorghum and citrus waste.
Florida officials also appear to be warming to the idea of “fuel farming.” Agriculture Commissioner and Kissimmee cattleman Charles Bronson has endorsed a proposal for food-based crops to make up 25 percent of the state’s fuel needs by 2025.
“I am talking about it all over the state to agriculture people,” he said. That included a meeting of property appraisers in Clearwater on Thursday.
“This is the brightest thing that can happen to the future of Florida if we pull it off,” he said.
Some even say Florida could become a net exporter of fuel.
Last month, Gov. Jeb Bush issued an executive order calling on the state’s Department of Environmental Protection to draw up a “comprehensive energy plan,” looking at fuel diversification, among other options.
Renewable fuel experts say the ethanol industry still needs state and federal tax incentives to fully launch itself into the marketplace. The good news, they say, is that the science is done.
Ingram doesn’t consider his work over. His team isn’t finished trying to perfect the E. coli. He continues to be invited to speak to prestigious bodies, and plans to attend a state energy forum later this month in Tallahassee. Occasionally, he gets a check in the mail for a few hundred dollars as part of the university’s policy of sharing royalties from its patents. A big payday may be around the corner. But he and his colleagues aren’t getting their hopes up.
“We are still waiting, aren’t we, for that big plant to be built,” he said wistfully.
David Adams can be contacted at email@example.com
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