Will Xtreme enzymes reach the gas pump?

Xtreme Xylanase could change the world, or at least the prospect of cellulosic ethanol.
That's the take from the Idaho National Lab, which supports the U.S. Department of Energy.

"This enzyme is a highly acid and thermostable xylanase enzyme from a microbe originating in Yellowstone National Park," a research fact sheet on the enzyme says. "It is capable of efficiently converting the hemicellulose and cellulose components of biomass into energy rich sugars. These sugars are building blocks used in place of petroleum to make fuels and high-value chemicals."

Sounds promising. Such breakthroughs bolster a study by Boulder, Colo.-based Pike Research which reported last month that energy generated from agriculture waste, manure and other wastes and feedstocks should reach a market value of $53 billion by 2020.

The big question is whether Xtreme will reach market. It needs to be embraced and developed successfully by private enterprise.

Pike Research cited "significant investments" in biomass research and the pace of commercializing new technologies. Advances in cellulosic ethanol and algae also were noted.

Earlier this summer, ZeaChem Inc. opened a plant in Boardman, Ore., which initially will produce ethyl acetate, a precursor to cellulosic ethanol. company officials said in a statement. ZeaChem intends to add cellulosic production next year, using a U.S. Department of Energy grant.

Cellulosic is the next step in biofuel movement. The technology extracts and ferments sugars from such sources as trees and grasses to produce the alcohol. Commercial production of the more traditional ethanol -- made from corn -- has suffered some recent swings in the market.

Idaho National Labs estimates 1.3 billion tons of sustainably available biomass in the United States. This would come from forestry wastes, agricultural residues and more from "energy" crops.

But cellulosic currently faces an economic problem. It costs prevent it from competing with refined gasoline and other petroleum products or corn ethanol. Lab officials say breakthroughs like Xtreme Xylanase could reduce high pretreatment costs through enzyme treatment and fermentation of the feedstock material.

"This allows the potential elimination of the extreme temperatures and expensive materials that make current dilute acid pretreatments so costly," lab officials said. "As a result of this innovation, biorefineries may be competitive with petroleum much sooner than with current technologies."

According to the DOE Energy Information Administration, by 2030 U.S. consumption of gasoline will be more than 200 billion gallons annually. Lab officials believe Xtreme Xylanase can help supply more than 60 billion gallons of that by 2030 through cost-effective ethanol production.

Xtreme Xylanase was developed by researchers at Idaho National Laboratory in Idaho Falls and isolated from the microbe Alicyclobacillus acidocaldarius. According to rdmag.com, the microbe was cataloged in 1971. In 2006, the magazine named Xtreme an R&D 100 award winner.