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New enzymes yield sustainable biofuel

Kai Tilley

Researchers at the Norwegian University of Life Sciences at Aas, Norway, may have broken the code for hyper-effective production of biofuels.


 M.S., Ph.D., Gustav Vaaje-Kolstad Researcher (left)  Group leader, PEP (Protein Engineering og Proteomics), Prof. Vincent G.H. Eijsink, (right)
M.S., Ph.D., Gustav Vaaje-Kolstad Researcher (left) Group leader, PEP (Protein Engineering og Proteomics), Prof. Vincent G.H. Eijsink, (right) Photo: Håkon Sparre
The discovery of a whole new type of enzymes may lead to optimized production of biofuels, enabling a switch from the use of food plants to use of less valuable biomaterials.

The production of biofuels has long been the subject of heated discussion, because much of the current production of bioethanol comes from food plants, such as sugar cane, maize, rapeseed and othercrops that occupy land dedicated to food crops. This conflict may now be resolved due to the discovery of new enzymes by researchers at the Norwegian University of Life Sciences. With these novel enzymes the decomposition and conversion of other types of biomass – such as straw, forestry waste products and the by-products from food production – to biofuels becomes highly effective.

Major breakthrough
In short, the breakthrough by the university’s resiearchers yields new technology for the sustainable use of biomaterials in the production of biofuels and other plant-based products.
 The authors in random sequence: Gustav Vaaje-Kolstad, Vincent G. H. Eijsink, Svein J. Horn, Zhanliang Liu, Hong Zhai, Morten Sørlie, Bjørge Westereng
The authors in random sequence: Gustav Vaaje-Kolstad, Vincent G. H. Eijsink, Svein J. Horn, Zhanliang Liu, Hong Zhai, Morten Sørlie, Bjørge Westereng Photo: Håkon Sparre

“Our research team has discovered a totally new type of enzyme, which helps break down cellulose and other robust sugar polymers in biomaterials, such as chitin, found in prawn shells. We have got this new enzyme to work, which means that enzymatic decomposition goes much faster,” says Researcher Gustav Vaaje-Kolstad at the Norwegian University of Life Sciences at Aas, Norway. The new enzymes have been provisionally designated as “Oxidohydrolases”.

 The new enzyme (red
The new enzyme (red Photo: Gustav Vaaje-Kolstad


Congratulations from the management at the Norwegian University of Life Sciences:
The publication of an article in Science today, in which all authors are associated with the university is simply brilliant!

Rector, the board and the management congratulate the authors and all who have contributed to this breakthrough. It shows that we at Norwegian University of Life Sciences have the ability to work basic and long-term, with the highest quality, while contributing in contexts of great relevance and opportunity for practical application. This is in line with the best of our traditions and culture!

Revolution within bioenergy
The researchers are optimistic and believe their new enzyme technology can quite simply revolutionise the production of biofuels in the future.
“It seems as if these findings can revolutionise the technology for production of the next generation of biofuels. The novel enzymes will generally be able to help with the development of new technology for better utilisation of all kinds of plant materials for all purposes in biorefineries,” says Vaaje-Kolstad.

Current biofuels give little environmental benefit
The research team based its work on the fact that much of current bioethanol production yields little environmental benefit.

“The world is well aware that we ought to use other types of biomaterials, such as straw, wood, kelp and food waste as the basis for biofuels. Several of the major potential raw ingredients contain high quantities of sugar in the form of the insoluble sugar polymer cellulose. Effective conversion of cellulose to simple sugars, which can be fermented to ethanol, has long been a bottleneck in the development of this form of more sustainable biofuels, referred to as “second generation biofuels”, adds Vaaje-Kolstad. This problem may now be solved.

Published in Science magazine
The breakthrough by the research team led by Professor Vincent Eijsink at the university has been published in Science, one of the most highly-regarded science magazines in the world. Acknowledgement by Science underlines the scientific significance of the results of Eijsink’s team. Major enzyme producers, such as Novozymes and Genencor, have worked for years to develop enzymes for the efficient conversion of cellulose to sugar, and have shown great interest in developments at the Norwegian University of Life Sciences in recent years. The researchers hope that their newly-published results will lead to closer collaboration in optimising the technology.

Facts on second generation biofuels
Global cellulose production represents a major part of the solar energy which is captured by plants every year. Consequently – and because cellulose cannot be digested by humans (in contrast to the starch one finds in maize corn) – there is massive interest in being able to exploit the energy locked in cellulose. To convert cellulose-rich plant materials to bioethanol or biogas yields “second generation biofuels”.

The process is as follows: the cellulose is broken down into simple sugars with enzymes (i.e. from a tree trunk or wheat straw to a sugar solution) and then fermented to ethanol or methane.

One of the major challenges here is that it is difficult to break down the cellulose-rich biomaterial into simple sugars, making it expensive to produce second generation biofuels. In general terms, overcoming this challenge will increase man’s ability to better utilise plant materials, including primary materials as well as waste products (such as straw and food waste). All the sugar in these materials can be used for almost anything, and can replace oil in more ways than as a fuel.

This is the biorefinery concept which companies such as Borregaard are investing in. It is important to emphasise that bioenergy is not the only thing involved here, as “green chemicals” and “the bio-based economy” are just as important areas that will benefit from the present discoveries.

Published: 08.10.10
Updated: 09.11.10
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