GAINESVILLE, Fla. -- In the beginning, Lonnie Ingram's objective was to get to the bottom of the way bacteria make alcohol -- particularly in tequila.
In the end, the University of Florida microbiologist wound up discovering something with potentially profound economic and environmental implications.
Mr. Ingram took two genes from one strain of bacteria, transferred them into another and came up with a hybrid microbe he affectionately calls his "superbug."
It is an apt name. Mr. Ingram's superbug, it turns out, is a ravenous bacterium that has the ability to produce ethanol from nearly any kind of plant material: corn stalks, corn cobs, sawdust, grass clippings, old newspapers and even the sludge generated by paper mills.
Mr. Ingram's associates believe the superbug may make it possible to distill pure ethanol from a variety of waste materials for as little as 45 to 50 cents per gallon, a development that could make it a rival to gasoline and create a huge alternative fuel industry around the world.
Mr. Ingram's discovery could create a windfall for his university as well, but his colleagues are not alone in their assessment of superbug as something special.
In March 1991, more than two centuries after Samuel Hopkins received the first U.S. patent for a process used to make potash, the University of Florida was awarded U.S. Patent No. 5,000,000 for the microbe that Mr. Ingram created in the laboratories of its Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences.
Ethanol is produced by fermenting the sugars contained in grains and other organic materials. But some complex sugars, such as those derived from the cellulose in corn stalks, are unaffected by the yeasts and other organisms normally used in the fermentation process.
Mr. Ingram was the first to reach the conclusion that two genes, not one, had to be transplanted to create a microbe that could make alcohol out of waste.
He developed his superbug by taking two genes from one strain of bacteria, called z mobilis, whose chief service had been to create tequila, and transferring them into e coli, a form of bacteria found in the intestines of all warm-blooded animals.
The superbug will first be used commercially in a plant in Glen Falls, N.Y., that is expected to produce 10 million gallons of ethanol fuel per year from the sludge generated by 15 upstate paper mills. Construction of the $25 million-plus facility is to start in late spring, and operations to convert paper mill sludge to ethanol are to begin in mid-1994.
Also in the works is a smaller operation in Brazil, where about 80 percent of the automobiles operate on pure ethanol. There, the fuel is extracted from sugar cane, and the planned superbug plant would produce 4 million gallons per year from the chopped-up stalks left by sugar mill operations.
Bionol Corp., a Massachusetts company that will operate the New York plant, and BioEnergy International, a Gainesville company holding exclusive license to the university's patent on the superbug, say they plan to develop 100 million gallons of annual ethanol production capacity based on the superbug.
Although ethanol promoters have long touted the alcohol extracted from corn as a potential answer to environmental prayers and the best way to reduce U.S. reliance on imported oil, it remains intensely controversial.
As a fuel additive, ethanol boosts the octane rating of gasoline. During winter months when carbon monoxide pollution is worst, ethanol is now used in 39 cities, including Baltimore, to increase the oxygen content of gasoline, as required by the Clean Air Act.
As a pure fuel, ethanol does indeed burn cleanly. But when it is blended with gasoline, it increases volatility and causes increased evaporation of smog-causing chemicals. For that reason, many critics have written off "gasahol" as a major alternative fuel in the nation's smog-prone urban areas.
Environmentalists also contend that ethanol would be prohibitively expensive in the absence of government subsidies.
Under current law, ethanol enjoys a 5.4 cents-per-gallon exemption from the gasoline excise tax when it is used in a blend.
But the drawbacks would largely evaporate if the price were halved and sufficient supplies became available to enable U.S. vehicles to burn pure ethanol, said David Doninger, an attorney for the Natural Resources Defense Council and a long-time ethanol critic.