Next generation biofuels

Using crops is the basis of many biofuel projects around the world and there are some interesting views on the way ahead. But what could the next generation of biofuels look like? How about self-digesting corn?. In mid September, this appeared on the BBC’s website.

But has Jeremy Thompson of the UK National Non-Food Crop Centre(NNFC) been inhaling the hype…It would be hard to disagree with a lot of Thompson says about the way biofuels could be produced

If you are chopping down huge areas of rainforest in order to grow palm oil, not only is the palm oil not very environmentally friendly, think of the damage to the area’s biodiversity.

He adds:

This is the problem with some biodiesel, but the fuel we are using now is only a transitory thing.

Fair enough, the current crop of biofuels is unsustainable in the long term, just like oil. Much of this is because of the large volume of fossil fuel that is needed to grow sustainable amounts of crops on land. But his views on what is achievable by using all of the crop from the grain to the root, are optimistic.

Thompson says that within a decade this could all be replaced by second generation biofuels, biofuels 2.0.

In Thompson’s words

When it comes to gasoline, we are talking lignocelluloses… Instead of just taking the grain from wheat and grinding that down to get starch and gluten, then just taking the starch, we are going to take the whole crop – absolutely everything.

Of course we’d still use fertilizer to keep the yields up, but we’d use the whole of the crop, so relatively the energy use would be lower.

The key is technology. Plants use cellulose-related structures to grow and for support. These structures are chemically complex and highly stable. If they weren’t, plants would rot in the fields before they got out of the ground. Thatched cottages would not picturesquely dot the landscapes in rural England. This cottage hidden in the link is composed of lignocelulose (tree trunks) beams and weather proofed with lignocelulose thatch (probably reeds).

But don’t worry, Tompkinson says

A number of companies are looking at something called ‘cellulose accessing packages’ that will allow us to take a bag of enzymes and pour it on to lignocelulose and ferment the whole lot.

O happy day. Lets not go into the time it will take to find the enzymes, the time, resources and energy it will take to, isolate and refine the enzymes and make them in useful volumes. No, the NNFC is about to start a feasibility study to see if the UK could produce a biomass to liquids plant. It would only cost around $375m , compared to around $94m for a 250 000 tonne/year biodiesel plant producing biofuel 1.0 product.

Perhaps he should have a word with David Lawrence, Syngenta’s director of research, and one of NNFC’s associates. He told me last year that biofuels from cellulose were going to take some time to develop. One route Syngenta is exploring is to genetically modify corn to make it more self digesting….more later.

Tompkinson says 10 years, Lawrence talks of at least five. If you think one, the other or neither is right. I’d love to hear from you.

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