The U.S. Department of Energy has given a $1.2 million, three-year grant to Dartmouth engineering professor Daniel Olson, who is investigating the use of biomass to produce next-generation fuels and chemicals. The goal is to use C. thermocellum, a type of bacteria that has been identified as a promising candidate for cellulosic biofuel production, to better understand similar organisms and their ability to be used as a platform for production of fuels and chemicals. (From NHBR)
If this sounds familiar – a Dartmouth engineering researcher trying to use bacteria to make biofuel out of cellulose (the tough part of plants, not easy to break down) – there’s a reason. I wrote about it last September in a piece titled “We’ll never be the Saudi Arabia of cellulosic biofuel, but it’s still a real thing.” You can read it here – and here’s a tidbit:
New Hampshire’s connection came from Dartmouth researcher Lee Lynd and a startup called Mascoma Corp. (named after the New Hampshire lake) that was going to use chemicals and heat and enzymes to manufacture lots of cellulosic biofuel and fight climate change. I wrote about visions of turning Northern New England into the Saudi Arabia of cellulosic biofuel, because I love a cliche as much as the next writer.
Fast forward to 2020, alas, and nobody, including Mascoma Corp., has been able to make the technology work at scale without spending a fortune. Perhaps worse, doubts have been cast on whether it actually would fight climate change.
I had pretty much forgotten about cellulosic biofuel until recently, when Lynd and other researchers released a paper arguing that the technology still has a role in developing a carbon-free economy. Making not as big a role as once hoped and maybe not a role for northern forests, but a role, nonetheless.
“Ten years ago expectations were very high. But the technology maturity was over-estimated – everybody got fooled and fooled each other. I started a company that was part of the dynamic, shall we say,” said Lynd, professor of engineering and biology in the Thayer School at Dartmouth.
My understanding is that biofuels in general still generate carbon dioxide. If it costs more than other CO2-producing fuel sources, then why is this will-o-the-wisp being pursued? To attract government subsidies? We all pay for that, you know.