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Monday, 28 April 2014 00:00

Investors betting tiny bacteria will drive bio-fuel boom

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Chris, left, and Gary Meisner of Meisner Aircraft are investing in research they hope will yield a clean source of renewable energy that could power airplanes. Chris Meisner is holding a flask of the experimental biofuel, derived from a tiny plant organism. Meisner Aircraft is based at Burlington Municipal Airport and includes Brad Meisner. Chris, left, and Gary Meisner of Meisner Aircraft are investing in research they hope will yield a clean source of renewable energy that could power airplanes. Chris Meisner is holding a flask of the experimental biofuel, derived from a tiny plant organism. Meisner Aircraft is based at Burlington Municipal Airport and includes Brad Meisner. Terry Mayer/staff

WALWORTH COUNTY SUNDAY -- One thing a lifetime of buying, selling and flying corporate aircraft has taught Williams Bay resident Gary Meisner is that owning a plane can be incredibly expensive. Both he and his clients have to constantly take into consideration the costs associated with airplane maintenance -- insurance, storage, operation and, of course, fuel.

Meisner also knows that as fuel costs rise, so too will the costs of owning an airplane. But if you had told him 10 years ago that he’d soon find himself investing in some of the most cutting-edge alternative fuel research happening in the world, he probably wouldn’t have believed you.

After holding a variety of aviation jobs, he used his experience to start putting buyers and sellers together on airplanes he knew were coming up for sale. It wasn’t long before his dealings blossomed into a business, and in 1979 he founded Meisner Aircraft. Today, alongside his sons Chris and Brad, he handles the purchase and sale of corporate aircraft all over the world from his hangars at Burlington Municipal Airport.

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It was serendipity that led Meisner to make his investment in alternative fuel research. Bryan Blatt of Bozeman, Mont., a friend and fellow aircraft salesman, was paging through the local paper when he happened upon a press release posted by Montana State University and Dr. Gary Strobel advertising a patent on a fungus that produces diesel fuel.

"When Bryan stumbled upon the opportunity in the newspaper, it led him to become great friends with Dr. Strobel," Meisner said. "The legal paperwork needed to secure multiple patents is expensive and that’s where we were able to help, so Bryan got us involved."

Immediately, Meisner was interested in the patent and the potential for further investment, so he jumped on the offer to get involved. Now, 2 1/2 years later, the Meisners and Blatt have secured the rights to the patent, formed a company and LLCs and opened a research laboratory in Bozeman.

"We have two lab techs working with us and Dr. Strobel heading up the lab," said Chris Meisner, vice president of Meisner Aircraft. "All the research is taking place out in Bozeman."

To understand something about the unique nature of the research that the local family is helping to get off the ground, you have to understand a thing or two about the rather prolific Strobel.

Strobel, 75, has been teaching and researching at Montana State University for 50 years. His many accomplishments as a microbiologist and naturalist have brought him considerable renown. As he describes, much of what he does involves trekking into the world’s jungles, finding microorganisms, trying to understand what they do and finding utility within their functions that may be useful to mankind.

Called a bio-prospector by Forbes magazine and often referred to as the Indiana Jones of fungi, Strobel frequently finds himself all over the planet in search of interesting and useful microorganisms. The specific microorganisms Strobel searches for are called endophytes.

"These microorganisms live within the tissues of plants and can’t be seen with the naked eye," Strobel said. "They are in the fruits, the stems, the leaves the roots and all throughout the plants. Not all tissues have endophytes associated with them, but many do."

It’s thought, although more research is needed to confirm it, that endophytes are engaged with plants in a symbiotic relationship, in much the same way certain beneficial bacteria help humans and animals. However, it is in these processes that some interesting byproducts are created.

Despite having a career that’s led him to license more than 20 individual specimens to companies like Eli Lilly, Chevron, Dow Chemical and Bristol-Myers Squibb, it wasn’t until 2009 off the coast of Africa that Strobel found the endophyte that may end up being the crown jewel in his fungal legacy. That endophyte is called nodulisporium (hypoxylon), and what makes it so interesting is that its byproduct contains compounds resembling those in diesel fuel. The patent for this endophyte is what Strobel advertised in the paper and what eventually led to the Meisners’ involvement with the project.

Although it has taken a considerable amount of research and development, Strobel and his team in Bozeman have not only discovered what the endophyte is capable of creating, but they recently have pioneered a novel way of growing it and harvesting its products.

"We invented something called a Paleobiosphere," Strobel said. "If you put the fungus in with some Bentonite clay and leaves, feed it with air and water and let it incubate for about three weeks at room temperature, you will recover, not all, but some of the representative molecules that you find in diesel fuel. We have already put it in engines and it has worked perfectly."

The advantage the diesel fuel-like compounds created by the endophyte has over other biofuels being explored is that it can be added to gasoline and diesel in much higher concentrations to achieve the correct octane rating. For instance, Strobel’s compounds can be added at 80 percent to 90 percent to a gas mixture, whereas ethanol maxes out at about 10 percent. Also, the yeast-based methods of producing biofuel consume large amounts of corn, but Strobel’s nodulisporium can use a much wider variety of organic material.

"This organism will grow on literally any agricultural waste, from leaves to sawdust," Strobel said. "The cost for organism’s feedstock is minimal."

Strobel admits that their production process is still in its infancy, and that much work remains in learning how to scale up yields and refine the method. It is clear, though, that the continued support of the Meisners is keeping the project afloat.

"Basically this is happening because they put an investment into it; had they not, this would have gone down the tubes," Strobel said. "I think it’s a very bold thing for them to do, and I think, ultimately, this thing will be a go. We can already demonstrate it and we have the patents; it’s fabulous."

Regardless, the Meisners feel that both the effort and investment are warranted, because the potential benefits are too great to ignore.

"We are hoping to be one of the cleanest sources of renewable energy," Meisner said. "Other renewable energy sources that require a feedstock such as corn or other resources drive up the cost of food for people in Wisconsin and around the world.

"We can produce these fuels and other green chemicals right in our laboratory in an economically beneficial and environmentally sustainable way."

What’s the next step? As for the research arm in Bozeman, they will keep a sharp eye on their Petri dishes looking for new ways to improve their production, but here in Walworth County, the Meisners are preparing for when the fuel can be produced in large quantities.

"We believe our technology will succeed as a consumable for the general public one day," said Chris Meisner. "We are in the process of looking for a cheap jet engine to buy and perform dynamometer testing as a jet fuel additive.

"We hope to one day be selling aircraft that are fueled 100 percent by our own biofuel."

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