As reported by Green Car Congress, the Biotechnology Industry Organization (BIO) sponsored a panel presentation in Washington, DC to discuss processes used to convert cellulosic feedstocks into sugars preparatory to fermenting into ethanol.
Supporting cellulosic ethanol is a good thing. However, there are processes other than those discussed by the panel that should be considered in any discussion about bioconversion of cellulosic feedstock. Noticably missing was BRI Energy, LLC which employs syngas fermentation to convert biomass to ethanol.
The companies that participated in the panel use enzymatic hydrolysis which involves developing (to date) expensive enzymes to break down the feedstock into sugars before using conventional fermentation processes to distill the sugars to ethanol. The problem I see with that is that: 1) each feedstock requires enzymes customized for it, 2) the feedstock cannot be blended and 3) the process takes a long time (days).
BRI Energy employs a simpler and more efficient conversion process. It gasifies the feedstock which means that the biomass can be pure or blended. The gasification step generates heat (which can be used to co-generate electricity). The now gasified syngas, when cooled, can then be scrubbed and bio-converted to ethanol by feeding it to anerobic bacteria that eats up the gas and secretes ethanol in a closed fermenting chamber. The process takes about 7 minutes. Zero emissions with benign purge and ash.
I believe BIO is right - cellulosic ethanol is the way to go. But they should seat syngas fermentation technology on the panel.
BIO Pushes for Cellulosic Ethanol
17 March 2006
Cellulase enzymes will play a critical role in the enabling of the production of cellulosic ethanol.
BIO, the Biotechnology Industry Organization, organized a panel in Washington this week to describe the industrial biotechnology processes that enable large-scale production of cellulosic ethanol from biomass such as crop waste and switch grass. The panel included representatives from biotech and biofuel firms Diversa, Novozymes and Abengoa Bioenergy, as well as BIO itself and the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC).
Panelists at the event described how industrial biotechnology—called the third wave in biotechnology innovation—is using novel biotech tools to identify or improve enzymes from microbes for use in converting the hard, fibrous content of plants, primarily cellulose and lignin, to sugars.
The resulting sugars can then be fermented by biotech-improved bacteria to make ethanol transportation fuel or biobased plastics. Recently completed research on enzymes makes possible large-scale production of cellulosic ethanol from dedicated energy crops—such as switch grass—or crop wastes such as corn stover and wheat straw or rice straw at a cost competitive with that of petroleum-based fuels.
Industrial biotech is the enabling technology that will allow farmers to harvest two crops from every field—a food crop and a biomass crop for fuel production. Biotech breakthroughs mean that the nation’s breadbasket could also become the energy fields of the United States. The question is not when, but how soon this will happen.
—Brent Erickson, BIO EVP for industrial and environmental biotechnology
technorati bioenergy, flex-fuel, greenhouse, legislation, oil, waste