If you weren't living under a scientific rock for the last 20 years, you know that everyone from environmental groups to Senator and then Vice-President Al Gore believed biofuels were the renewable way to cut dependence on foreign oil and have a cleaner environment.
If you weren't living under a scientific rock for the last 20 years and know anything about how biofuels are made you always knew that was complete hoopie, but it wasn't until a Republican president and Congress agreed they were good that everyone knew they must be terribly wrong.
But biofuels are not as bad today as some make them out to be, just like they were not as good as many of those same people used to make them out to be. Renewable energy continues to be the goal and biofuels can be a part of that, though most have switched to wildly optimistic projections about solar energy as the magic cure-all of the future now.
That doesn't mean biofuels should be eliminated from consideration. Just like it was a mistake for politicians and activists groups to overstate the benefits and costs of biofuels then it would be a mistake to abandon them entirely now.
Cellulases, enzymes which can break down cellulose, a major component of plant biomass, are getting a new look. Traditional methods of generating enzymes for biofuel production currently operate at over five times the target cost required to make the fuels financially competitive.
The perfect solution for truly green energy that can be produced greenly are cellulases which can break down the plant material into useable compounds in industrial quantities and at a low cost. Cheaper and better is always good.
A group of scientists from Texas A&M University say they have a solution: using plants to also make the enzymes. Professor Zivko Nikolov, who leads the Bioseparations Lab at A&M, described their research at the Society for Experimental Biology's Annual Meeting in Marseille [Session P2].
By using plants which have been engineered to make the proteins, Professor Nikolov believes that the target can be met. His group, which has expertise in the development of economic processing techniques, have designed processing strategies which allow multiple products to be obtained from each crop, making the whole process more economically viable.
"One of our projects focuses on producing cellulases, enzymes which can break down biomass, in maize seed. By carefully designing the processing chain, from a single crop of maize we can deliver oil that can be turned into biodiesel, cellulose that can be used to make other biofuels, and fibre and protein which can be used as animal feed, as well, of course as the enzymes themselves," he reveals. "These multiple products offset the outlay on the enzyme purification process, meaning we can make enzymes far more cost-effectively than is achievable using traditional fermentation methods, a result which we can also see in a similar sugarcane processing project."
In the 1990s there was much interest in using plants to make both industrial enzymes and pharmaceuticals, but in the last five years such industrial enzyme developments have gone out of fashion, largely due to production costs that simply weren't viable, combined with public unease.
Now Professor Nikolov's group have brought this technology back into the picture. "The economic improvements that we have delivered to the processing pathway, combined with a greater public acceptance of transgenic plants, mean that we can now develop the full potential of this technology. This in turn will bring us a step closer to the vital challenge of generating cheap alternative fuels over the coming decades," he concludes.