Energy crop producing company Ceres, Inc. and Novozymes, the world’s largest enzyme provider, have entered a research collaboration to co-develop customised plant varieties and enzyme cocktails for the production of cellulosic biofuel. The companies expect to improve the process of converting biomass to fuel through more effective enzymes and higher quality energy crops in a joint optimisation project that will lead to greater fuel yields, as well as lower capital and operating costs.
“This is an example of how technology providers from different parts of the value chain are coming together to make cellulosic biofuel a commercial reality. Energy crops have an important role to play in the world’s future, sustainable energy mix. According to the Billion Ton Study by the US Department of Energy, one third of the total sustainably collected biomass potential from agricultural resources can come from perennial crops”, said Cynthia Bryant, Global Biomass Business Development Manager of Novozymes.
Energy crops such as switchgrass, miscanthus and sorghum are high-yielding crops planted specifically for their energy content. They thrive with less water and fertiliser than other crops, and will often also grow on marginal lands where other crops cannot. They therefore represent a very promising addition to traditional biofuel crops. Energy crops also have huge environmental benefits. The US Environmental Protection Agency estimates that biofuel from switchgrass reduces CO2 emissions by 110% compared to gasoline.
Ceres and Novozymes will initially work to determine the best enzyme cocktails for the biorefining of Ceres’ commercial switchgrass seed products. The partners will also begin similar evaluations of sweet sorghum, and Ceres’ researchers plan to develop customised plant varieties that can be degraded more easily by Novozymes’ enzymes. Enzymes can convert the biomass from energy crops into sugar, which can then be used to produce biofuel and other bio-products.
Spencer Swayze, senior manager of business development at Ceres, says that through advanced plant breeding and other genomics-based tools, Ceres scientists are developing energy crops that minimise the components in biomass shown to decrease conversion rates and yields. In fact, one of the advantages of dedicated energy crops is the ability to better control composition.
A 2009 Sandia National Labs study, using conservative yield and conversion assumptions, concluded that 75 billion gallons of cellulosic ethanol could be produced per year in the U.S.1
1 Sandia National Laboratories and General Motors’ R&D Center: “90-Billion Gallon Biofuel Deployment Study”, http://hitectransportation.org/news/2009/Exec_Summary02-2009.pdf
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