Trillium awarded NSF grant for cellulosic ethanol development

By Bryan Sims | September 12, 2011

Corvallis, Ore.-based Trillium FiberFuels has been awarded a $150,000 Small Business Innovation Research grant through the National Science Foundation to further its work in developing novel techniques for producing fuel-grade cellulosic ethanol from agricultural biomasses such as straw from ryegrass and wheat.

Specifically, Trillium is developing a commercially robust and readily scalable process technology that focuses on the use of a naturally occurring enzyme called xylose isomerase to convert xylose into xylulose, a sugar that conventional yeast can convert to ethanol.

According to Chris Beatty, president of Trillium, the company’s route for converting xylose into xylulose to make cellulosic ethanol is significant because it allows Trillium to manage pH levels much more efficiently throughout the entire conversion process compared to other commercial xylose enzymes currently on the market.

“They do work, but one of the learnings over the course of our work was that a rather mundane thing happens, and that is commercial enzymes work at a pH level at about 7.5,” Beatty told Biorefining Magazine. “Fermentations want to work at 5 to 6 pH. In this work, you’re constantly adjusting the pH and for a low-cost commodity like ethanol it turns out that the cost of doing that can be quite significant—about 10 to 15 cents per gallon.”

For the portion of its work, Trillium focused on pretreating the biomass by using pressurized, hot water or dilute acid to isolate and extract the xylose.

“For the hemicelluloses fraction, you can get to that portion pretty readily,” Beatty said, “but the trick is to not degrade that during the preatreatment step to get at the alpha cellulose.”

The latest grant, according to Beatty, is good through the end of this year and qualifies Trillium to compete for a larger Phase 2 award next year. Beatty added that his company is open to potential partnerships with biorefining firms that are looking to integrate the process for efficient conversion of xylose-rich biomass into cellulosic ethanol.

“Our hope is to partner this technology with someone who’s looking for a C5 solution,” Beatty said. “There are a number of people with C5 solutions out there and we think this can be competitive, particularly if either of these pH-compatible xylose isomerases work, then we feel we have a solution.”