In 1974, the Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC) initiated an oil embargo that caused price shocks and scarce supply resulting in an energy crisis in the U.S. and other countries. In the United States, both the government and the private sector responded vigorously to this crisis and by the early 1980s numerous companies were pursuing a wide variety of alternative energy and conservation technologies.
The energy crisis had a profound impact on scientists and engineers around the world including the co-founders of Mascoma Corporation, Charles Wyman and Lee Lynd.
Charles Wyman’s interest in alternative fuels emerged from a grammar school science fair project on the storage of solar energy. His interest in alternative fuels broadened throughout his education and a doctoral degree in Chemical Engineering from Princeton University in 1971 provided the foundation Wyman needed to further his alternative energy vision. His particular interest in biofuels propelled his career during the late ‘70’s and early ‘80’s when he served as the Director of the Biotechnology Center for Fuels and Chemicals at the National Renewable Energy Laboratory (NREL) in Golden Colorado. Wyman became an authority in the field of cellulosic ethanol in 1996 when he published the “Handbook on Bioethanol”. He is one of the world’s leading experts in biomass pretreatment, the critical first step in all cellulosic ethanol conversion processes.
In New England, Wyman’s future colleague, Lee Lynd, was working on a farm where he noticed heat energy emanating from a compost pile. The observation of microbes producing energy from biomass sparked Lynd to speculate on the possibility of using biomass as a fuel source. He would follow this idea with tremendous passion for decades to come as he pursued Masters and Ph.D. degrees in engineering from Dartmouth College. In 1987, Lynd joined the Dartmouth faculty where today he is recognized as one of the world’s leading experts in biological conversion of pretreated biomass into ethanol and other fuels.
It was not surprising that Charles Wyman and Lee Lynd would cross paths at a biomass energy symposium in the late 1980s. However, those were lean times for alternative energy research and commercialization efforts. With oil prices retreating to pre-embargo levels, private investment had largely dried up during the ‘80’s and ‘90’s and most of the nascent alternative energy companies went bankrupt as a result.
The picture was equally grim in the academic world. Despite a lack of funding and fewer graduate students, Wyman and Lynd remained steadfast in their commitment to biofuels research. In 1991, they co-authored a seminal article published in the journal Science in which the authors concluded that industrial production of cellulosic ethanol was technologically feasible. Moreover, this article focused the attention of the scientific, ecological and political communities on the beneficial impact that utilization of cellulosic ethanol could have on global climate change and balance of trade.
In 1997, Wyman joined the Dartmouth faculty where he and Lynd continued their research on cellulosic biofuels with a particular focus on the most efficient method of production: consolidated bioprocessing (CBP).
By the turn of the millennium, Lee Lynd’s and Charles Wyman’s vision of harnessing renewable and sustainable biofuels with low environmental impact, proved prescient. Global environmental, financial and political considerations ensured a bright future for alternative energy in general and biofuels in particular. After nearly twenty years of research, the goal was within reach and ready for commercialization. The concept for a biofuels company based on CBP production of cellulosic ethanol began on the back porch of Charles’s summer home on Lake Mascoma during the summer of 2005. Mascoma Corporation was founded by Wyman, Lynd and Bob Johnsen with initial funding from Khosla Ventures and Flagship Ventures.
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