One of the major concerns regarding biofuels is the competition with food stocks due to concerns of diversion of plants such as maize, sugar cane, rapeseed etc to make fuel.
Second generation biofuels are greener as they can be made from non-food crops such as grass and sugar cane bagasse. Currently, a lot of research is being carried out in this field.
One of the most exciting news to emerge from biofuel research over the last week came from the Norwegian University of Lifesciences at Aas, where scientists say they have discovered a whole new type of enzymes that may lead to optimized production of biofuels. This would make possible the switch from food plants to biowaste and other less valuable materials.
The new enzymes make the decomposition and conversion of biomass types such as straw, forestry waste and by-products from food production “highly effective”, they claim.
“Our research team has discovered a totally new type of enzyme, which helps break down cellulose and other robust sugar polymers in biomaterials. We have got this new enzyme to work, which means that enzymatic decomposition goes much faster,” says research leader Gustav Vaaje-Kolstad. The new enzymes have been provisionally designated oxidohydrolases.
The scientists are very optimistic about the potentialities of the new enzyme. “It can revolutionize the technology for production of the next generation of biofuels. The novel enzymes will generally be able to help with the development of new technology for better utilisation of all kinds of plant materials for all purposes in biorefineries,” says Vaaje-Kolstad.
The researcher adds that there is a pressing need to derive biofuels from non-food types, but there are obstacles that need to be overcome. The new enzyme may be just the answer we’ve been looking for.
“Several of the major potential raw ingredients contain high quantities of sugar in the form of the insoluble sugar polymer cellulose. Effective conversion of cellulose to simple sugars, which can be fermented to ethanol, has long been a bottleneck in the development of this form of more sustainable biofuels”, he says.
Cellulose cannot be digested by humans but it can be broken down into simple sugars with enzymes and then fermented to ethanol or methane. But this conversion process is difficult and so far has made the production of second generation ethanol expensive.
“Overcoming this challenge will increase man’s ability to better utilise plant materials, including primary materials as well as waste products (such as straw and food waste). All the sugar in these materials can be used for almost anything, and can replace oil in more ways than as a fuel”, the researchers say.