Novozymes partners for cellulosic ethanol research

By Lisa Gibson | May 31, 2010
Energy crop company Ceres Inc. and enzyme provider Novozymes will collaborate on research to co-develop customized plant varieties and enzyme cocktails to improve cellulosic ethanol production.

The joint optimization project will lead to more effective enzymes and higher quality energy crops for greater fuel yields and lower capital and operating costs, according to Novozymes. Research will begin with determination of the best enzyme cocktails to biorefine Ceres' commercial switchgrass seed product, along with similar evaluations of sweet sorghum. Ceres' researchers will also develop customized plant varieties that can be degraded more easily by Novozymes' enzymes, in addition to crops that minimize the components in biomass shown to decrease conversion rates and yields.

"The composition of biomass varies greatly, even within a crop like switchgrass and sorghum," said Gary Koppenjan, Ceres corporate communications manager. "Within this variability, we are looking for the optimal combination of biomass characteristics (the lock) and the enzyme cocktail (the key). The first step is to understand what locks and keys are available, and then which ones offer the best results."

Like feedstock characteristics, the process technology is also an important factor, according to Cynthia Bryant, marketing manager for Novozymes. The two elements can significantly change the specific enzyme complex needed to optimize biomass to fermentable sugar conversion. "This is why Novozymes has expanded our research from focusing on enzyme development to also researching process technology in the areas of pretreatment, hydrolysis and fermentation in order to optimize the feedstock, process and enzyme interrelationship," she said.

Other contributors such as the producer's business model can also play a role in the optimal enzyme and crop combination. "The challenge with cellulosic ethanol production is that unlike the corn-to-ethanol process, which basically has a standard process technology and business model, cellulosic ethanol will rely on a multitude of feedstocks, process technologies and business models," Bryant said. "If two producers use the same feedstock but have different process technologies and business models, the optimal enzyme complex could be different."

One way to address the needs of many unique combinations could be to develop enzyme complexes that are best suited for each combination, she said, adding that Novozymes has the capability to do that today and applies it in many of its industries.