Developing the Fuel of the Future

An incubator company based at UConn is using biomolecular technology to develop nonfood crops for fuel.

<p>Michael Raab stands with stalks of corn growing in a greenhouse at the Agriculture Biotechnology Building. Raab is president of Agrivida a business participating in the Technology Incubation Program.   Photo by Peter Morenus</p>
Michael Raab, president of the startup company Agrivida, stands with stalks of corn growing in a greenhouse at the Agriculture Biotechnology Building. Photos by Peter Morenus

Surrounded by corn growing in a greenhouse alongside UConn’s BioScience Complex, Michael Raab stands amidst what may be the fuel of the future.

Over the next few decades the world will need to wean itself from dependence on fossil fuels to help reduce global warming. One way could be with “green crude,” a new generation of transportation fuel made from nonfood crops.

The corn around Raab has been engineered so that the whole plant, including leaves, stalks, and husks – the so-called “stover” that is commonly discarded after the corn is harvested – can be converted into high-value biofuel.

“We’re on the right path,” says Raab, president of Agrivida, a startup company he co-founded that is using biomolecular technology to develop an alternative fuel in the state-of-the-art greenhouses and labs of UConn’s Technology Incubation Program. “There’s no question our energy future is going to be more diverse than it is now.”

Scientists around the globe are racing to discover ways to turn biomass – such as lumber, garbage, algae, and crop wastes – into competitively priced fuels. Agrivida is part of the rush, seeking an economically sound and renewable, biologically based fuel to replace gasoline.

Ethanol, a clean alternative fuel produced from sugars in crops such as corn and sugar cane, has been supported by federal blending incentives and has come under scrutiny for potentially affecting the price of corn and other basic foodstuffs. The Obama administration is betting that nonfood crops can eliminate these issues and provide a new generation of sustainable biofuels.

<p>Photos of corn research conducted by Agrivida a business participating in the Technology Incubation Program.   Photo by Peter Morenus</p>
Seedlings of bioengineered corn.

A 2008 federal law requires companies that blend gasoline to add increasing amounts of renewable fuels into the gas they sell over the next decade. Raab believes Agrivida’s patented process for creating biofuels from agricultural biomass, which combines horsepower and green power, will appeal to those companies.

“Our development of nonfood energy crops will significantly increase ethanol production,” he says. “I think it’s reasonable to be shooting for providing half of the nation’s liquid transportation fuel with sustainable biofuels.”

Almost everything that grows on earth has cellulose that can be fermented into ethanol. Yet the main economic barrier to increased cellulosic ethanol production is the high cost of processing plant biomass into biofuel. The challenge lies in breaking down cellulose – the main component of plant cell walls – and converting it into useable sugars for biofuels production.

Agrivida is developing a variety of energy crops – including switch grass, sugarcane, sorghum, and corn – to make ethanol production from cellulose commercially viable. The corn plants in UConn greenhouses have been engineered to make them capable of breaking down cellulose to provide rapid access to the sugars used to produce biofuels.

Company researchers have bioengineered enzymes that are incorporated into the corn plants’ cell walls. Agrivida’s novel technology is a molecular switch that enables those enzymes to remain inactive while the corn plants grow.

<p>A researcher harvests corn embryos as part of corn research conducted by Agrivida a business participating in the Technology Incubation Program.   Photo by Peter Morenus</p>
A researcher harvests corn embryos.

At harvest, these enzymes are activated to degrade the entire mass of plant cellulose material into small sugars that can readily be converted into ethanol, thereby reducing processing costs for this raw material. By enabling the production of cheap sugars from cellulosic biomass, Raab estimates Agrivida can reduce processing costs by more than 30 percent, making the process commercially competitive with gasoline.

Corn-based ethanol was established in the U.S. on an industrial scale because most of the elements to commercialize were in place: vast cornfields and an infrastructure for moving corn to processors, Raab explains. The search for better ethanol – or “cellulosic ethanol” – just takes the experience of corn ethanol a step further.

“There’s a lot of sugar in cellulose, so there’s a lot of energy in it,” he says. “Cellulosic ethanol is still more expensive to produce [than corn ethanol]. Yet the development of Agrivida’s optimized enzymes to enhance cellulose degradation will help advance the commercialization of technologies that will dramatically increase cellulosic ethanol production.”

After completing graduate school in 2005, Raab started the company with money from grants and investment partners. In 2007, he located the company’s plant engineering group in Storrs, after learning about UConn’s technology incubator and greenhouses.

Aimed at nurturing the successful startup of high-tech companies, the Technology Incubation Program offers fledgling entrepreneurs lab and office space with ready access to UConn researchers, facilities, and equipment, and to a variety of business and university services to help ensure their success.

Agrivida now has 35 employees – including four UConn alumni and several current students – and has plans to expand its workforce in the coming years, when the company hopes to be able to sell its modified corn seed to ethanol production plants.