Turning trees – the wood chips and sawdust – into biofuel in hours promises new profitability for the Norwegian forestry and wood processing industries, now that the demand for paper is on the decline.
Finn Lillelund Aachmann, a biotechnology researcher at the Norwegian University of Science and Technology said, “The time when we use food stock to make biofuel to power a car may soon come to an end. Currently, maize and sugar cane are used to produce biofuel.” Aachmann thinks that the desire for people to have environmentally friendly fuel should not be at the expense of food.
Today’s biggest challenge in making biofuel from wood has been that it is a time-consuming process. In fact, it can take several weeks to make biofuel for cars. This slow transformation of wood chips into ethanol has been a bottleneck for companies that want to make money from the process. With a new super enzyme on their side, the process can be completed in hours.
The super enzyme works like a tiny wood machine that scratches up the surface of the wood so that other enzymes can gain access and break the hard surface down into sugar. The enzyme quite simply shoots holes into the wood surface with the help of oxygen bullets.
The super enzyme was discovered by researchers at the Norwegian University of Life Sciences (UMB). The discovery was published in the international journal Science in 2010. In 2011, the world’s largest enzyme producer, Novozymes, bought the enzyme technology patent from UMB. But the company needed a closer understanding of how the enzyme works.
Aachmann has used Nuclear Magnetic Resonance (NMR) technology to learn more about the super enzyme. NMR technology permits the detailed study of each nucleus of a molecule. Molecules are the smallest components of all biological and chemical processes. NMR technology is used to determine the molecular structure of anything from organic compounds to proteins, and the technology is the basis for a whole range of disciplines in both research and industry.
“NMR technology gives us a new understanding of the super enzyme, which makes it possible for us to improve the use of the enzyme even more. This is of great importance if we are to create a more financially profitable and efficient process for producers,” says Aachmann.
OK. The super enzyme is out there and Novozymes has it. The press release isn’t clear, but Novozymes’ needs might have been answered as a cause for the release to be put out.
But there still isn’t an industry ready. Some working prototype ethanol units are going to need demonstrations to entice serious money for production plants. Then there is the matter of the effectiveness of the super enzyme on other feedstocks.
So many questions – so few answers. But the cellulosic ethanol industry is going to launch – and food prices will not come down one tiny little bit.