Technology Review has an article on a pilot plant being built by Zeachem to make ethanol using termite microbes - A New Route to Cellulosic Biofuels.
Biofuel startup ZeaChem has begun building a biofuel pilot plant that will turn cellulosic feedstocks into ethanol via a novel approach that uses microbes found in the guts of termites. The company says the ethanol yields from the sugars of its cellulosic feedstocks are significantly higher than the yields from other biofuel production processes. ZeaChem says its process also has the potential to produce a plastic feedstock.
The company employs a hybrid approach that uses a combination of thermochemical and biological processes. It first uses acid to break the cellulose into sugars. Then, instead of fermenting the sugars into ethanol with yeast, as is typically done, the company feeds the sugars to an acetogen bacteria found in the guts of termites and other insects. The bacteria converts the sugar into acetic acid, which is then combined with hydrogen to form ethanol.
"It's a little more complicated than a conventional process. It's not the obvious, direct route, but there is a high yield potential," says Jim McMillan of the U.S. Department of Energy's National Renewable Energy Laboratory in Golden, CO.