Companies Offer Promising Solutions for Sustainable Industrial Systems
Susan Aldridge, Ph.D.
Akey theme of the fifth edition of “BioVision: the World Life Sciences Forum,” which will be held in Lyon, France, later this month, is defining the contribution of life sciences to the UN’s Millennium Development Goals, specifically ensuring a sustainable environment by 2015. A key element in that goal is developing clean and affordable sources of energy that can meet growing global demands.
Currently, biomass accounts for 11% of global energy consumption. Increasing this proportion could have important environmental benefits; for instance, adding 10% bioethanol to regular gasoline reduces carbon emissions by 3–6%. Biomass has the potential to, at least partly, supplement fossil fuels, although the extent to which it could actually replace them is debatable as the technology is still maturing.
The production of bioethanol from crops such as sorghum, rye, barley, and sugar beet is expanding rapidly. The U.S. produced 14.8 billion liters in 2005, and the EU has set targets that ethanol fuel should account for 5.75% of energy consumption in the transport sector as early as 2010.
Developing Biofuel Enzymes
Biotech has much to contribute toward developing ways of producing biofuels, for example, by developing either naturally occurring or genetically modified enzymes to breakdown starch and cellulose into fermentable sugars. In the session “Energy: BioScience Solutions and Challenges,” three companies will explain some of the technologies and approaches they are using to help biofuels compete within a fossil fuel-dominated world.
Genencor (www.genencor.com) is actively involved in developing technology that makes cellulosic ethanol a reality. To this end, Genencor worked under a $20-million contract with the U.S. Department of Energy’s National Renewable Energy Laboratory to develop advanced enzymes for the conversion of biomass to ethanol.
“The technology is ready for demonstration”, says Jack Huttner, vp of biorefinery business development. “Cellulosic ethanol represents one of the most exciting new technologies for reducing the greenhouse-gas profile of the transportation sector. Using renewable carbon sources to replace fossil fuels is a great step forward in sustainability and energy independence.”
The tools of biotechnology make new biocatalysts possible, which opens up significant new markets for enzymes designed for the production of biofuels, biochemicals, and biomaterials. Today about 5%, or 12.5 billion pounds, of U.S. chemicals and materials are produced from bio-based resources.
Novozymes (www.novozymes.com) is also working on enzymes for both first- (starch) and second- (cellulose) generation biofuels. “Enzymes for converting biomass into ethanol is a key research area for Novozymes,” says Steen Riisgaard, president and CEO.
The company has a number of collaborations on biofuels in the U.S., Europe, and around the world. For example, Novozymes recently signed an agreement with China Research Alcohol, under which, it will supply enzymes for a pilot plant that converts cellulose to biofuels. For China, the cellulose route will be the major one as starch crops are used for food.
Finally, Total (www.uk.total.com), a European provider of automotive and biofuel, wants to expand the use of renewable carbon and has set up a wide range of collaborations to this end, according to Veronique Hervouet, biomass and symfuel development manager.
For instance, the company is working with Neste Oil to look at the feasibility of building a unit at one of the Total refineries for the production of a high-performance, synthetic biodiesel from vegetable oil and animal fat. It is also looking at using high-pressure pyrolysis to upgrade wet biomass in order to produce a biocrude that could be used as feedstock in a biorefinery.