May 3, 2010

Biologists Work To Squeeze Energy Out Of Cellulose

Chelsea Hadaway  /  Charleston Regional Business Journal

Microbial Fuel Cell Technology is trying to use bacteria to make biofuels.

The basic idea is to manipulate microorganisms to create ethanol from cellulose, using bacteria as a catalyst.

Using bacteria isn't a completely new idea –- University of Massachusetts scientist Derek Lovley is using bacteria to produce electricity. But in the SCRA MUSC Innovation Center on Meeting Street, the MFC Tech team is working to patent a process that creates biofuel using a commercial size bioreactor.

Co-founder Hal May, a microbiology professor at the Medical University of South Carolina, started the company in 2006 with Michael Nelson, whom he met doing post-doctoral work at Virginia Tech.

"There was a call out from the Department of Energy to improve the ethanol yield from cellulose," May said. "So we looked at what would be the best product to sell."

The company was awarded a $850,000 grant from the DOE to work on this. The startup also received funding from SC Launch! as well as a small business grant.

The business has one published patent from May's work at MUSC on the mixture of organisms he uses. They are in the process of filing another patent now.

They already know the process works. But back in the labs, they are working on scaling up the process bit by bit until it's on a large enough scale to sell to companies or investors for commercialization.
"No one's done this before," May said.

Tsutomu Shimotori, a research scientist, and Brian Corbett, a bioprocess engineer, work in the lab preparing bacteria cultures, designing and testing each new bioreactor.

"We don't want to be only an R&D company forever. I can go back to MUSC and do only R&D there," May said. "We want to add demonstration to that."

Microbial Fuel Cell Technology has a goal of creating a large-scale pilot bioreactor by 2011 and to start building the scale units by 2012.

In addition to working on scaling up the process, the company is trying to secure outside financing. It's working on developing partnerships with consortiums and other private investors.

Earlier this year, the company moved from a small rented space to a full lab at the SCRA MUSC Innovation Center. Even as the company moves onto building larger-scale units, MFC Tech plans on keeping the space at the center and using it as an incubator for other projects the company might develop.

May is keeping an eye on the next wave of technology –- converting carbon dioxide to fuels. The DOE has pushed out a proposal now, although it's in its infancy, he said.

Another possible product line he sees coming out of their company is one based on hydrogen, which is the major component used in products like fertilizer.

"These are big growth segments," May said.

The company has submitted a proposal for a $500,000 National Science Foundation grant to scale up the process to produce hydrogen, and May hopes to hire another full-time researcher soon.

"2010 will be a newsworthy year for us," May said. "We're making lots of progress."

Co-founder Nelson was able to quit his day job back in October to focus on MFC Tech full time. Although Nelson also comes from a technical background, he has experience working with startups – in dealing with funding, accountants and intellectual property attorneys.

They project a revenue stream to start coming in 2013, and they are already looking at a few sites to manufacture the commercial bioreactors.

"I think we can really turn this into something," Nelson said.