A new EU-funded project aims to develop economically and environmentally efficient techniques for the production of biofuels.
Called NEMO ('Novel high-performance enzymes and micro-organisms for conversion of lignocellulosic biomass to bioethanol'), the initiative will generate new ways of converting agricultural and forestry waste, such as straw and wood chips, into liquid biofuels.
Some EUR 5.9 million of NEMO's EUR 8.25 million budget comes from the 'Food, Agriculture and Fisheries, and Biotechnology' Theme of the Seventh Framework Programme (FP7).
The 4-year project brings together 18 project partners including universities, research institutes and companies producing enzymes, ethanol and chemicals, from 9 European countries (Belgium, Finland, France, Germany, Italy, the Netherlands, Slovenia, Sweden and Switzerland).
NEMO is coordinated by Professor Merja Penttilà¤ of VTT Technical Research Centre of Finland.
At the moment, most biofuels in use are so-called first-generation biofuels. These are based on sugars found in crops such as sugarcane, starch from crops like corn, or vegetable oils.
The production methods used to generate these fuels are not very efficient and offer only limited greenhouse-gas emissions savings compared to traditional fossil fuels. Furthermore, there are concerns that energy crops could compete with food crops for land, leading to food shortages and rising food prices.
Second-generation biofuels offer a number of advantages. For a start, they are made from waste products from food crops (e.g. stems, leaves and husks), so they do not require farmers to choose between growing energy crops or food crops. They are also more efficient, and so offer greater environmental benefits.
However, the energy in these plant parts is locked up in a form called lignocellulose, which makes extracting the sugars from this substance extremely difficult.
Second-generation biofuel production has four stages: first the raw material undergoes pre-processing, before the lignocellulose is converted into simpler sugars. Microbes then ferment the sugar into ethanol, and finally the ethanol is distilled.
NEMO project partners are focusing on the first part of the process. One of the major goals of the project is to develop enzymes that can convert the lignocellulose into sugar compounds that can be easily fermented and turned into ethanol. The researchers will also study yeast strains that can convert sugars into ethanol quickly and efficiently.
The new enzymes and yeasts will be tested in pilot-scale facilities to ensure that they function well under industrial conditions.
According to the project partners, the technologies developed by NEMO could also be applied to the production of other biofuels and chemicals.
A report from the European Commission shows that the EU is unlikely to reach its target of obtaining 5.75% of energy used by the transport sector from renewable sources (such as biofuels) by 2010. Based on current trends, the figure is more likely to be 4%.
Progress on second-generation biofuels is therefore urgently needed if the EU is to meet its longer-term target of obtaining 10% of transport fuels from renewable sources by 2020, as agreed under the recently-approved Climate and Energy Package.
VTT Technical Research Centre of Finland
Based on information from VTT Technical Research Centre of Finland
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