Norwegian scientists have made a breakthrough in the production of biofuel from wood. The new process reduces the time that it takes to convert woodchips or sawdust into ethanol from weeks to just hours. This not only makes wood based biofuels economical to make but could reduce the competition between biofuel and food.
“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,” says Finn Lillelund Aachmann, a biotechnology researcher at the Norwegian University of Science and Technology.
Aachmann thinks that the desire for people to have environmentally friendly fuel should not be at the expense of food. But turning trees – wood chips and sawdust – into biofuel in hours promises new profitability for the Norwegian forestry and woodprocessing industries, now that the demand for paper is on the decline.
To be a realistic source of biofuel for vehicles wood needs to be converted into fuel within a reasonable time period. Traditional techniques though took weeks to breakdown the tough wood fibre into ethanol The researchers used a new enzyme to do the conversion and the time to produce fuel dropped to just a few hours.
This new enzyme does not do the converting to fuel itself but it breaks down the tough wood coating producing holes that allow other enzymes into the wood.
This 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.
Ongoing research ny the university using Nuclear magnetic resonance technology has allowed scientists to get an even better understanding of the enzyme and by having a better understanding of the structure the scientists have been able to make further improvements.
“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.