New Enzyme Cocktail Can Break Down What Is Now Waste Into Biofuels & Raw Materials For Industry Danny Fortson
We could soon be wearing jumpers made from corncobs and driving cars powered by prairie grass, according to Steen Riisgaard, a Dutch Microbiologist.
It sounds outlandish, but the company Riisgaard runs, Novozymes, is the world's largest maker of industrial enzymes, the brothy solutions that convert corn and sugarcane into everything from biofuels to washing-powder additives.
The biofuel industry, however, is beset by problems. Corn should be used to feed the hungry not fill up your car, critics argue. Converting crops into fuel is often far more polluting than the petrol and diesel it is supposed to replace and has created surges in food prices that have led to unrest, such as last year's riots in Mexico.
There are, Riisgaard claims, a solution: sugar - specifically, sugars derived from plants that today's biochemistry is unable to turn into anything usable. "For the past 10 years we have been working on finding the new oil that will be more sustainable and also renewable," said Riisgaard. "Sugar will be the basis for an entire new chemicals industry."
Which takes us back to the corncob. Today's enzymes can break down only a small portion of plants, such as corn kernels or the marrow of the sugarcane. They are no match for the hardy fibrous parts like the husk. The result is that most parts of most plants are off limits, leaving billions of tons of material to be discarded.
Novozymes has perfected a breakthrough enzyme cocktail that can break down the fibrous material into glucose, the basic sugar that can then be converted into fuel, fabrics, packaging and other products.
The process is not unlike refining crude oil into ethylene the feedstock for an astonishing array of products, from plastics to nylon stockings. Riisgaard said he had "no doubt" the new enzymes would give rise to a "sugar economy" to replace today's oil-dependent one.
The company is holding trials of its enzyme cocktail in 30 pilot facilities in America, China and Brazil. Novozymes will be ready for volume production by next year, when Poet, America's largest biofuels producer, opens the first refinery to process agricultural waste.
Novozymes estimates that enough agricultural waste is produced each year to provide for a quarter of the world's fuel consumption. Other plants such as prairie switch grass, which grow on marginal dry land without fertilisers, and woodchips can also be used for "second generation" biofuels.
Novozymes will be the first to make commercial quantities of the new enzymes, Riisgaard said, but he is not the only one in the hunt. BP formed a joint venture with Verenium, and American company, this year to develop second-generation biofuels and plans to open a plant in Florida by 2012.
Building a new global industry from mountains of agricultural waste or weeds seems too good to be true. Riisgaard is adamant it will happen, but admitted: "The old paradigm was 150 years in the making, so it will take time for the new one to develop, but I have no doubt it will happen."
Times of India, Ahmedabad, 24 october 2009