Making ethanol production efficient
James Steele, Professor
Department of Food Science
UW-Madison College of Agricultural and Life Sciences
2:55 – Total Time
0:11 – Role of bacteria
0:22 – Describe ethanol making process
0:45 – How is bacteria currently managed
1:02 – Current control process
1:15 – Solution to controlling bacteria
1:42 – Other benefits
1:55 – Will it improve yield
2:03 – How long before this technology is available
2:30 – What will your biotech company look like
2:40 – What is the market for this product
2:48 – Lead out
Sevie Kenyon: Changing the efficiency of ethanol production. We’re visiting today with James Steele, Department of Food Science, University of Wisconsin-Madison in the College of Agricultural and Life Sciences and I’m Sevie Kenyon. Jim, start out by giving us an idea what the role of bacteria is in the ethanol process.
James Steele: Nothing good today. Yeast is there to be able to make the ethanol and the bacteria kind of steal from that yeast.
Sevie Kenyon: Can you describe, then, how that chokes the process of making ethanol?
James Steele: Well we have sugar in an ethanol plant that comes from the corn. And what we’re trying to do is then convert that sugar to ethanol using the yeast. If the bacteria competes with the yeast for that sugar it takes it to lactic acid and that’s bad because that’s not the product we want. Additionally, if enough lactic acid is produced, it will actually inhibit the yeast and stop the fermentation.
Sevie Kenyon: At this stage Jim, how is this lactic acid bacteria problem managed in an ethanol plant?
James Steele: It’s not possible to make these plants sterile anymore than it is a cheese factory or a wine factory. In the case of the ethanol industry, about 70% of the plants use antibiotics and about 30% are using hops, the same thing we do in the beer industry.
Sevie Kenyon: Can you describe how that works?
James Steele: So they’re simply added to the process after the cornstarch is heated up and asthmatically made down to pieces that we can ferment, it then is added as it is cooled. And that then kills the bacteria that would be produced in the lactic acid.
Sevie Kenyon: Jim, you’ve been working on a process here, a little solution, can you describe that for us?
James Steele: Well, we believe that if you understand the microbial ecology of these plants and actually work with those lactic acid producing organisms, we can control lactic acid in those ethanol plants. We’ve taken a lactic acid bacteria and we then converted it so it only makes ethanol now. And we believe that will actually compete with the contaminants and will be able to control using natural means and eliminate the use of antibiotics and/or hops.
Sevie Kenyon: What are some of the other benefits of that?
James Steele: Well the antibiotics in those ethanol plants end up in the distillery grains. That’s animal feed and there is a great deal of interest reducing the amount of antibiotics that get into the animal feed.
Sevie Kenyon: Does it improve yield in the plant as well?
James Steele: We believe it will. There are sugars that the yeast struggles to use that we would like to be able to see our lactic acid bacteria be able to use.
Sevie Kenyon: Jim, how long might it be before ethanol plants get their hands on this technology?
James Steele: We’d like to believe by the end of the year and that’s directly related to, and we owe a great deal of thanks, to the Wisconsin Alumni Research Foundation which helped us write the patents and then gave us funds to be able to make our technology more market ready. And then D2P, which have really taken us to the point of being able to understand how to launch a small company and really helped us develop the knowledge and the background that’s going to be required to run our company.
Sevie Kenyon: Jim, can you describe for us what the future company may look like?
James Steele: Well it will be a small biotechnology company engineering new strings of lactic acid bacteria to control those strains that are present in the ethanol plants.
Sevie Kenyon: What do you see as the market for these products?
James Steele: We believe that we can save the typical ethanol plant anywhere between $500,000 and $1,000,000 per year.
Sevie Kenyon: We’ve been visiting with James Steele, Department of Food Science, University of Wisconsin-Madison in the College of Agricultural and Life Sciences and I’m Sevie Kenyon.