Next Up: Second Generation Biofuels

Tuesday, December 24, 2013 @ 10:12 AM gHale

A family of enzymes just discovered is able to degrade hard-to-digest biomass into its constituent sugars which could lead to a new development in the second generation of biofuels.

“First generation” biofuels have already made an impact in the search for renewable and secure energy sources particularly through the generation of bioethanol manufactured from easy-to-digest food sources such as corn starch, said scientists at the University of York in the United Kingdom.

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The resulting need for energy crops is using up valuable land threatening food price stability and limiting the amount of biofuel that can grow on farms.

The use of “difficult-to-digest” sources, such as plant stems, wood chips, cardboard waste or insect/crustacean shells, is a potential solution.

Fuel made from these sources is “second generation” biofuel. Finding a way of breaking down these sources into their constituent sugars to allow them to go through the fermentation process to become bioethanol is the Holy Grail of biofuel research.

New research led by Professor Paul Walton and Professor Gideon Davies at York and also involved Professor Bernie Henrissat, of CNRS, Aix-Marseille Université, Marseille, France, opens up major new possibilities in the production of bioethanol from sustainable sources.

By studying the biological origins and the detailed chemistry of the enzyme family, the researchers showed nature has a wide range of methods of degrading biomass which humankind can now harness to produce sustainable biofuels.

“There’s no doubt that this discovery will have an impact on not only those researchers around the globe working on how to solve the problems associated with second generation biofuel generation, but—more importantly—also on the producers of bioethanol who now have a further powerful tool to help them generate biofuel from sustainable sources such as waste plant matter,” Walton said.

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