One of the biggest challenges for biofuels is to find ways to break down cellulosic biomass and convert it into ethanol. These are the cell walls of plants, which contain sugars that can become fuel without competing with food crops. The trouble is getting the right enzyme to do the job.
Research is being carried out into this particular aspect of the process. One of the latest announcements came from Clarkson University, where Sergiy Minko received a $200,978, three-year NSF grant for a study on enzymes. Minko will be working with Andriy Voronov and Scott Pryor, from the North Dakota State University, who received $309,357 from the NSF for their part of the research.
The main objective of the research is to bring prices down for biofuels created this way, also known as second generation biofuels. Current prices are not competitive.
“The technology is based on this enzyme, which is extracted from a special population of microorganism. This process makes the biofuels from cellulose to be expensive related to traditional fuels”, says Minko. “The major idea of this project is to make this process less expensive just by recycling the enzyme.”
The researchers will be looking into ways to recycle enzymes after they have been selectively extracted. To do that, they will use bead-like capsules that will release the enzymes into the biomass to make the ethanol. Later the same capsules will collect the enzymes and use them again. Since the capsule is larger than the enzyme, it’s easier to collect it from the biomass.
The focus will be on two specific problems: how to signal the capsules to release the enzymes and how to get the capsules to selectively extract the enzymes at the end of the process.
Despite the difficulties with the extraction part, Minko thinks it’s worth trying. “It’s easy to pick up the wrong material instead of the enzyme”, he says. “If you collect them, it’s normally difficult to release them. But in principle, it’s possible”.
Article by Antonio Pasolini, a Brazilian writer and video art curator based in London, UK. He holds a BA in journalism and an MA in film and television.