Ah, beer. The cause of and the solution to all of life's problems. - Homer Simpson
Homer is right, as usual. Diversa, a leader in finding and 'developing' enzymes, has teamed up with New Zealand Crown Research Institutes Scion (forest research institute) and AgResearch (pastoral research institute) to figure out a way to turn trees (or cellulose/tree waste) into fuel. Fermentation of cellulose is harder than it looks, but advances out of this program could have a tremendous impact on the world's agricultural landscape.Like beer, fuel ethanol can be produced by fermenting sugars- a slow process. At the end of the slow process the ethanol makes a 'wine' which then needs to be extracted (with energy) to be useful as a fuel. Cellulose further complicates matters by not really being a sugar in the first place. Grain crops, like corn or wheat, which have lots of natural sugars (well..starch-but close enough) are too energy intensive to grow. Robert Rapier's blog does a good job of explaining why ethanol production from grain crops is not a good idea (thanks GreenEngineer!)- which leaves us cellulose (and other alternative energy sources).
Diversa has spent its life scouring the earth for odd microbes that convert one thing into another. New Zealand, an agriculture savvy country far away from everyone- could use a sustainable biofuel crop. It appears Diversa has found a process that looks promising for turning cellulose into a digestible sugar. The sugar can then be fermented to produce the 'wine' (not for drinking). The CEO of Diversa, Edward Shonsey, had a few nice sound bites for the project-
"This represents an opportunity to have a positive impact on the future of New Zealand and other countries with abundant cellulosic biomass such as wood. Successfully developing new cocktails of enzymes to convert wood to ethanol could really change the paradigm of energy thought and policy."
The best part is -he is right- the new research is aiming to turn New Zealand's transportation system into one based on cellulose biofuel. This is a big challenge, but the pay-off is large as well. If it works, then other temperate climates may be able to joint the fun. Biomass may can already be quickly turned into syngas (on a small scale), and we know we can turn cellulose into sugar for fermentation (slow?)- it is hard to believe we can't speed up or scale up the other- either way biomass products and biofuel are going to be something we can tank up to in the future.
"Apu, you got any Skittle Brau? Never mind, just give me some Duff and a pack of Skittles."- Homer Simpson