Growing energy

Nottingham University is leading two five-year research programmes aimed at developing sustainable bioenergy fuels from non-food crops, inedible parts of crops, and industrial and agricultural waste products.

The projects are two of six being run by the £27m Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council (BBSRC) Sustainable Bioenergy Centre, which was announced on 27 January and represents the largest-ever single UK public investment in bioenergy research.

The centre’s research activities will involve different stages of bioenergy production, from increasing the range of materials that can be used to improving crops by making them grow more efficiently. Katherine Smart, professor of Brewing Science in the School of Biosciences, is hoping to develop a form of yeast that is able to break down plant cell walls to produce ethanol.

The research intends to make items such as wood shavings, straw and the husks from barley grains a common element in the production of ethanol.

Prof Smart said: ‘The government is committed to producing replacement transport fuels. We can already buy petrol with five per cent ethanol in it but this is imported and it is important that Britain has strong energy security. Our fuel will be produced through materials that currently end up in landfill or simply go to waste.

‘The challenge is to break down the toughest part of the plant, unlock the sugars, and by developing the very best yeast find an extremely efficient way of converting these sugars into ethanol.’

A further project will explore the large-scale production of butanol by developing microbes than can convert plant waste into biofuel. This will have benefits over ethanol by providing a greater energy content and the possibility of being used in petrol at higher concentrations.

Nigel Minton, a professor of applied molecular microbiology at Nottingham University, said : ‘We really are focused on the holy grail of biofuel research, developing bacteria that are able to convert non-food, plant cell wall material into a superior petrol replacement, butanol.

‘If you had asked me a couple of years ago, I would have said it was not possible. However, my team has now developed some world-beating technologies that will allow us to generate the Clostridium strains required.’