ALTERNATIVE-FUELS PIONEER RECEIVES FIRST-EVER
$100,000 LEMELSON-MIT AWARD FOR SUSTAINABILITY
Dartmouth College Engineering Professor and
Mascoma co-founder Lee Lynd honored for 25 years of
inventive achievements and research into alternative fuels
CAMBRIDGE, Mass. (April 2, 2007) — Your car could soon become a vegetarian thanks to a
process for cost-effectively converting cellulosic biomass, such as grass, wood, wheat and rice straw, into ethanol that
can be used for fuel. When it does, it will be due to inventors such as Lee Lynd, professor of engineering and adjunct
professor of biology at Dartmouth College, and co-founder of Mascoma Corp. Lynd received the inaugural $100,000
Lemelson-MIT Award for Sustainability today, which recognizes inventors whose products and processes enhance economic
opportunity and community well-being, while protecting and restoring the natural environment.
Lynd and his colleagues' inventions are at the forefront of advanced technologies for converting
biomass feedstocks into motor vehicle fuels. Lynd is being recognized for these inventions, as well as his
vision and long-term advocacy of biofuels as a sustainable alternative to fossil fuels.
"Decades ago, Lee Lynd started doing something about global warming and the rapid depletion of the world’s
non-renewable energy resources," said Merton Flemings, director of the Lemelson-MIT Program. "He continued to
experiment and pursue his ideas even when the conventional wisdom said they couldn’t be done."
"Lee's groundbreaking research has driven forward the public policy debate, the business world, and the
fundamental science of bioenergy," said Nathanael Greene, a senior policy analyst at the Natural Resources
Defense Council, and one of Lynd’s nominators for the $100,000 Lemelson-MIT Award for Sustainability. "His work
has helped frame our basic understanding of the sustainable potential for bioenergy and especially biofuels."
A 'Harebrained Idea' From a Compost Heap
In 1977, while an undergraduate biology major at Bates College, Lynd spent a summer working on an
organic farm in North Reading, Massachusetts and was struck by how much heat a compost heap could generate. "I
said, my goodness, that pile of grass and whatnot is four-feet high, and if you put a thermometer down into the
bottom of that, it's 150 degrees Fahrenheit," he recalled.
At first, Lynd thought about using compost heaps as a source of heat. Although he soon realized that was not
promising, the idea of using biology to produce energy stayed with him. "An initially harebrained idea can lead
you to something worthwhile if you run with it for awhile," Lynd said.
As Lynd's vision for biofuels took shape in the late 70s, he realized that cellulose-utilizing bacteria that
produced ethanol were known, and that production and utilization of cellulosic biofuels could involve a
sustainable carbon cycle with no net emissions of carbon dioxide. These initial insights have served him well
over several decades of continuous focused effort, during much of which the world showed little enthusiasm for
renewable fuels. "I think the thing that served me the best is clarity of purpose," he explained. "For decades
when biofuels were not popular, I thought the topic was exciting and important, and so I worked on it anyway."
top of page
Step-by-Step Progress Toward a Big Idea
In the United States today, fuel ethanol is derived from corn, which is available in limited
quantities and consumes substantial amounts of fossil energy as currently produced. "On the other hand," Lynd
observed, "cellulose is the most abundant organic compound on the face of the Earth and production of fuel from
cellulosic biomass displaces far more fossil fuel than is required to produce it."
Lynd has identified one-step fermentation of cellulosic biomass into ethanol or other biofuels—a process
configuration known as consolidated bioprocessing (CBP)—as a potentially transformative breakthrough for
low-cost processing. While the vast majority of research on processing cellulosic biomass has focused on
separately-produced enzymes used in multi-step biological processing, Lynd's group is the most active worldwide
in research on the one-step, CBP approach.
"Developing a microbe that can convert cellulosic biomass to ethanol can be approached in one of two ways," said
Lynd. "Either start with organisms that are able to grow well on biomass and modify them to produce ethanol
better, or start with organisms that produce ethanol well and modify them so that they can grow on biomass."
Lynd's group is investigating both approaches. His group has recently engineered thermophilic bacteria—similar
to those present in the compost heap that captured his imagination years before—to produce ethanol as the only
fermentation product. Working in collaboration with colleagues at the University of Stellenbosch, South Africa,
the group has also engineered yeast to grow on cellulose.
"Originally, we were motivated to look at CBP by process engineering considerations—fewer tanks and fewer
process steps," said Lynd. “However, as we have learned more about how microorganisms utilize cellulose, we are
finding additional, biological, advantages to the CBP strategy."
"Microbes grow on cellulose by producing cellulase enzymes, which hydrolyze cellulosic biomass into sugars that
can be fermented to ethanol," he explained. "Producing cellulases requires expenditure of the cell's energy
currency, a molecule called ATP." A key doubt about the feasibility of CBP was whether ethanol producing
microbes could produce enough ATP to make cellulase in sufficient quantities to allow rapid cellulose
hydrolysis. Lynd's group showed, however, that a naturally-occurring cellulolytic bacterium actually has several
ATP-generating mechanisms that are specific to cellulose utilization and that these mechanisms more than
compensate for the ATP requirement of cellulase synthesis.
In an additional development, the Lynd group showed that cellulase enzymes are several-fold more effective when
they are present on the surface of a metabolically-active cell as compared to when the enzymes act independently
of cells. "Nature has solved many of the challenges associated with microbial cellulose utilization, which we
are gradually discovering," said Lynd.
Largely as a result of Lynd's efforts, the potential of CBP has been increasingly recognized of late. For
example, a recent DOE roadmap states, "CBP is widely considered to be the ultimate low-cost configuration for
cellulose hydrolysis and fermentation."
"The difference of opinion is how long it will take," said Lynd. "Most people still think CBP is a decade off,
but I think we can get there much faster than that."
top of page
A Mission to Commercialize Biofuels
Recently, there has been a renewed interest in alternative fuels, especially after oil reached $70 a
barrel in the wake of Hurricane Katrina and the political instability in the Middle East. In 2006, with Series A
funding from Khosla Ventures and other financiers, Lynd co-founded a start-up company called Mascoma Corporation to
advance technologies such as consolidated bioprocessing and make fuel production from cellulosic biomass a commercial
In his nomination letter for the $100,000 Lemelson-MIT Award for Sustainability, renowned venture capitalist Vinod
Khosla said he has become a "big believer" in the ability of ethanol to reduce America's dependence on petroleum.
"While corn-based ethanol is a great start toward this goal, the ability to convert cellulosic feedstocks to ethanol
is the Holy Grail," he wrote.
In addition to Lynd's invention work, he is also one of the leading analysts and advocates addressing the need to
develop and adopt alternative fuels. He co-led a multi-institution research project that produced the seminal report,
"Growing Energy: How Biofuels Can Help End America's Oil Dependence," published in 2004 by the National Resources
Defense Council. Lynd was also the biofuels industry representative on an advisory committee to the Executive Office
of President Clinton on reducing greenhouse gas emissions from personal vehicles, and has twice testified before
Lynd is also an inspiring mentor to others. He manages the only graduate fellowship program in the general energy field, and
has supervised dozens of students who share his passion for alternative fuels.
"Energy is and always has been important," he said. "Right now, it's the critical issue of our time and a huge
determinant of human well-being and prosperity. In the future people will look back and judge us by how well we
responded to this challenge."
In addition to the $100,000 Lemelson-MIT Award for Sustainability, the Lemelson-MIT Program also named
Timothy M. Swager as the 2007 winner of the $500,000 Lemelson-MIT Prize today. Swager is the Department Head and John
D. MacArthur Professor of Chemistry at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. He is being recognized for
inventing a range of materials and devices using original molecular-based designs, including sensors with increased
sensitivity that are ideal for detecting explosives.
From May 2-5, Lynd and Swager will participate in the first-ever EurekaFest, a multi-day celebration of the inventive spirit
presented by the Lemelson-MIT Program in partnership with the Museum of Science, Boston.
top of page
ABOUT THE LEMELSON-MIT PROGRAM
The Lemelson-MIT Program recognizes outstanding inventors, encourages sustainable new solutions to real-world
problems, and enables and inspires young people to pursue creative lives and careers through invention. Jerome H. Lemelson, one
of the world’s most prolific inventors, and his wife Dorothy founded the Lemelson-MIT Program at the Massachusetts Institute of
Technology in 1994. It is funded by the Lemelson Foundation, a private philanthropy that celebrates and supports inventors and
entrepreneurs in order to strengthen social and economic life. http://web.mit.edu/invent/
ABOUT THE THAYER SCHOOL OF ENGINEERING AT DARTMOUTH
Dartmouth is a private, four-year liberal arts institution that has been at the forefront of American
higher education since 1769. A member of the Ivy League, Dartmouth is a superb undergraduate residential college with the
intellectual character of a university, featuring thriving research and first-rate graduate and professional programs.
Thayer School of Engineering at Dartmouth was founded in 1867 by Dartmouth alumnus Sylvanus Thayer. The School operates
with a single unified Department of Engineering Sciences offering both undergraduate and graduate programs. World-class
research at Thayer School is advancing innovation in high-impact areas that cut across traditional engineering
disciplines and address critical human needs.
Mascoma Corporation is a cellulosic biomass-to-ethanol company with corporate offices in Cambridge, MA and
R&D labs in Hanover, NH. Mascoma is leading the development of unique biotechnology and deployment of cellulosic
production. Initial deployment activities are focused on strategic partnerships for conversion of wood-based cellulosic
feedstocks into ethanol at relevant commercial scale. Mascoma is aggressively developing advanced cellulosic ethanol
technologies in its Lebanon, NH labs, as well as in Lee Lynd's labs at Dartmouth College's Thayer School of Engineering,
and through other sponsored research and in-licensing of best-in-class technologies. Mascoma received founding investment
from Khosla Ventures and Flagship Ventures and has since received Series B funding from a consortium of leading venture
Read more about Lee Lynd.
top of page