Brewing Biofuel Innovation
MU professors form a startup to pursue a potential biofuel breakthrough.
Biofuel production is maddeningly difficult to do economically.
Turning a plant into liquid fuel is straightforward using sugar-rich corn, but corn is expensive. Biomass, such as wood chips and switchgrass, is cheaper and doesn’t impact the food supply, but the enzymes that convert it to fuel are expensive.
That got Shibu Jose (rhymes with close) and a team of MU scientists thinking: What if those expensive enzymes can be reused?
Their ideas attracted Ron Wood, former president and CEO of Black & Veatch’s energy division. With Wood as CEO, Jose, the H.E. Garrett Endowed Professor and director of The Center for Agroforestry, and his team launched Tiger Energy Solutions in January 2013 in the MU Life Sciences Business Incubator.
Team members are George Stewart, chair of the Department of Veterinary Pathobiology and McKee Professor of Microbial Pathogenesis in the College of Veterinary Medicine; Kattesh Katti, Curators Professor of Radiology and Physics in the School of Medicine; and Chung-Ho Lin, assistant research professor of agroforestry in the College of Agriculture, Food and Natural Resources.
Their idea is to anchor the enzymes to a platform, like a filter, which preserves them, and pair them with other molecules for greater strength and efficiency. The group has engineered an enzyme that can be reused 20 times in the lab. The goal is to reach 160 reuses in a pilot plant.
With his corporate background, Wood has little patience for clean energy projects that can’t compete in the marketplace. With federal law mandating ever-higher use of advanced biofuels, the challenge to overcome is supply, not demand. Which is why Wood sees a bright future for their startup.
“Once we’ve got the science, funding won’t be an issue,” Wood says.
Indeed, the team has already received $500,000 in funding, including a $350,000 Mizzou Advantage grant.