Advances Continue for Cellulose Ethanol Processing

Enzymes are no longer the main economic barrier to the commercialization of biomass technology, according to the results of a four-year research partnership between Danish company Novozymes and the United States National Renewable Energy Laboratory (NREL).

In January 2001, the organizations began research into cutting costs associated with converting cellulose biomass from corn stover into sugar for the production of fuel ethanol and other valuable products. Once commercially viable, a process of this type could help reduce dependency on non-renewable and petroleum-based energy and raw material sources. Research was supported by funds from the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE), for a subcontract that totaled US $14.8 million over three years, with a one-year extension worth US $2.3 million that was granted in April 2004. By using its comprehensive range of proprietary biotech tools to identify new enzymes, engineer and boost catalytic activity, and increase production yield, Novozymes successfully reduced the overall enzyme cost for the process of converting corn stover to ethanol to US 10 cents to 18 cents per gallon in laboratory trials. This 30-fold reduction from the starting point of more than US $5 dollars per gallon in 2001 is due to a combination of pre-treatment technology developed by NREL and novel enzyme solutions from Novozymes. “Needless to say, we’re delighted with this achievement because it clearly demonstrates Novozymes’ ability to solve real-world problems through the application of advanced biotech processes,” Per Falholt, the executive vice president for Research and Development at Novozymes, said. “Although these results are still only on laboratory scale, and probably require a modified business model for enzyme production, this is a major step forward in commercializing production of fuel ethanol from renewable biomass, and validates yet again the value and promise of industrial biotechnology.” Based on its four years of focused research in this area, Novozymes developed unique expertise in the conversion of corn stover and other biomass feedstocks, expertise that will encourage broader industrial applications beyond fuel ethanol. For example, Novozymes’ work may make possible the use of corn stover as an alternative feedstock for products currently derived from petrochemicals. However, successful commercialization of the biomass-based process for production of fuel ethanol and other useful products is still dependent on further refinements of the enzyme technology, establishment of a formal collection system for biomass, further progress in overcoming the technical barriers in biomass pre-treatment, optimization of current yeast organisms, as well as financial incentives for industry to invest in facilities utilizing biomass instead of corn starch as feedstock. “Novozymes has made great progress in reducing the cost of enzymes for the utilisation of cellulosic biomass, effectively eliminating a major technical barrier to commercialisation. By combining NREL improvements to the pre-treatment of corn stover with new enzymes developed by Novozymes, the cost reduction achieved provides an excellent example of the synergy that can be harvested through well-placed government-sponsored research partnerships. While much work remains to translate this success to the commercial marketplace, Novozymes should be applauded for their fine efforts in this collaboration,” said Douglas E. Kaempf, Biomass Program Manager at the U.S. Department of Energy. “These new enzyme systems are the key to the future growth and geographical expansion of the fuel ethanol industry into areas where cereals are not readily available,” Gerson Santos, R&D Director at Abengoa Bioenergy, said. “In 2006, we expect to initiate testing of Novozymes’ enzymes solutions at our biomass fractionation process development pilot plant in York, Nebraska, USA to validate the technology’s performance.” US fuel ethanol production has grown rapidly over the past few years, and totaled 3.5 billion gallons in 2004. That’s up more than 20 percent, according to Novozymes, because of benefits from environmental legislation and a political drive towards more sustainable fuel sources.


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