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Green tech company makes home here

Date: 10/13/2009

By G. Michael Dobbs

Managing Editor

CHICOPEE -- In another few years, the city of Chicopee may be known as the location where renewable fuels took a huge step forward.

Congressman Richard Neal, State Sen. Michael Knapik and Mayor Michael Bissonnette were among the officials at the groundbreaking for the pilot facility for Qteros, a company that uses a microbe to convert cellulose from plant material into ethanol.

Although originally slated to be based in Springfield at leased space at Solutia, a decision made by Solutia management not to lease space to the company eventually led them to Chicopee, Bissonnette explained to Reminder Publications. A new unoccupied building at 150 Padgette St. will be the Marlborough-based company's Western Massachusetts facility.

Bissonnette said the city was "lucky" to have the building available and that it was able to "zone and permit [the project] in two weeks."

He learned about the company from an article in the Boston Globe Magazine last year and asked staff member Chris Nolan to find out more about the company and to contact them.

William Frey, the CEO of Qteros, explained a microbe found at Quabbin Reservoir by University of Massachusetts microbiologist Dr. Susan Leschine naturally turns cellulose from plants into ethanol. The pilot program would develop the technology to reproduce the microbe in quantities that could create a new energy industry.

Frey added the ethanol produced this way doesn't require additional cultivation, unlike the process that uses corn or switch grass. The cellulose could come from any plant material, including wood chips. He said he envisions ethanol plants to be located where paper plants once were.

According to a report on the company's Web site, "This summer, at the World Congress on Industrial Biotechnology and Bioprocessing in Montreal, Leschine announced that Qteros's process has achieved unprecedented ethanol outputs of 70 grams per liter (nine percent by volume) in a single-step process on industrial feedstocks such as corn stover. This surpasses the 50-grams-per-liter threshold for commercial viability."

"There is nothing like this," he said of the process.

Currently, the company is waiting to be notified if it has been awarded an $18 million grant from the Department of Energy that would help fund the pilot program, Frey said.

Housing and Economic Development Secretary Gregory Bialecki said the Qteros operation in Chicopee represents a basic philosophy of the Patrick Administration.

"The governor believes innovation is the heart of the Massachusetts economy and that's how we're going to get out of the recession," Bialecki said.

Neal expressed his confidence in the new energy technologies and the boost to the economy it will bring.

"Green technology, the new economy are going to happen," he said.

The construction of the pilot facility will be completed by the end of the year, Frey said, and he expects the company to move in during the first quarter of 2010. There will be eight to 10 people working at the pilot program.

If all proves successful, the facility would then expand into a manufacturing mode that would produce the microbe for sale to licensed ethanol plants, Frey said. He likened it to producing yeast to sell to bakeries.

Gayle Sherman, president of the Chicopee Chamber of Commerce, called the location of the company in the city "fantastic."