EU funds waste biofuel project

European institutes and companies have begun work on a multi-million Euro effort to develop manufacturing methods for liquid biofuel from agricultural and forestry waste.

The NEMO (Novel high performance enzymes and micro-organisms for conversion of lignocellulosic biomass to bioethanol) project has received €5.9m (£5.2m) funding from the European Union.

Agricultural and forestry waste, such as straw and wood chips, are mainly lignocellulose. This consists of sugars but in a form that makes them difficult to be used by microbes in the production of ethanol.

Over the next four years, researchers in the NEMO project will develop enzymes that can be used to cut lignocellulose into sugar compounds suitable for fermentation. The goal will be to tailor the metabolism of microbes so that they can produce large volumes of ethanol out of the biomass sugars economically and efficiently.

The researchers will then evaluate the suitability of the developed enzymes and yeast strains for industrial biofuel manufacturing processes.

Nearly all biofuel is produced using the first generation technology, which is mainly based on the use of sucrose contained in sugarcane or starch-based glucose contained in corn as raw material. Apart from the sugarcane, the current production methods are not energy efficient enough and their impact on reducing carbon dioxide emissions is not sufficient.

The production of ethanol consists of four stages: the pre-processing of the raw material, the conversion of carbohydrates from polymers into sugar, the fermentation of sugar into ethanol using microbes, and the distillation of ethanol.

Different technologies are being globally developed for pre-processing the raw material. The NEMO project is focusing on hydrolysing cellulose using enzymes and fermenting the created sugars using tailored microbes.

According to Merja Penttilä, the project coordinator of the VTT Technical Research Centre of Finland, yeasts are excellent production organisms and suitable for large-scale industrial production. With the use of enzymes, sugars can be released gently from the lignocellulose so that the sugar solution is not too toxic to microbes.

Liquid biofuels contain carbon that is obtained from renewable raw materials such as biomass. This carbon is turned into the chemical compound ethanol and mixed within transportation fuel. In practice, fermentation is the most efficient method for manufacturing bioethanol.

In the project, VTT will focus on the development of efficient enzymes and yeast production organisms. The EU has set a recommendation for its member states with the aim of replacing 5.75 per cent of transportation fuel with biofuels by 2010 and a mandatory target of 10 per cent renewable energy sources in transportation by 2020.