When considering the nation’s daunting energy challenges, it’s always a good idea to keep in mind the power of innovation. This applies to game-changing technologies as well as new and improved ways of working in established industries: it’s both making fuel out of cow manure, and advancing deepwater drilling technology to unlock oil that was once considered unreachable.
Qteros, a small company based in Marlboro, Massachusetts, is just one of many examples of this sort of innovation. Today, the company is building a power plant that will create ethanol in a revolutionary, and highly efficient way. Not long ago, Qteros was nothing more than a lone microbe living in the ground of western Massachusetts, awaiting discovery.
That discovery was made by a local professor who was studying the biodiversity in the region, removing dirt from the forest floor, taking it to a lab and isolating its different components. One of those compounds, which was later named the “Q-Microbe,” showed an uncanny ability to digest plant matter and yield ethanol. Scientists who worked with this microbe described it as something of a plant eater.
Since cellulose – the stuff that plants are made of – is notoriously hard to break down, it has traditionally been difficult to produce ethanol in a cost-effective way. But the highly efficient way this Q-Microbe works creates new possibilities for making large volumes of ethanol from all sorts of plant matter, not just corn.
The company, in other words, has the power to upset the existing economics of ethanol production in a way that could produce a lot more for a lot less money. The fact that it’s based on a naturally occurring compound, offers a sense of all of the other potentially transformative substances that already exist in nature.
A final twist: This discovery that it is possible to break down plant cellulose more efficiently has set off a search for other so-called plant eaters. One of the recent contenders to be studied is the termite, which for all the destruction it leaves in its path seems to have a powerful bacteria in its gut that lets it digest wood. Talk about thinking outside of the box: How about eating your way out of the box?
We’ll be highlighting different examples of innovation in the coming weeks. Please be sure to tell us your thoughts on the most innovative moves in energy.