Wood Chips to Biofuel Breakthough

While it used to take weeks to make biofuel from trees, researchers from the Norwegian University of Science and Technology have figured out how to make it in just a few hours, according to an article in ScienceDaily.

To date, biofuel manufacturers relied largely on maize and sugar cane to produce biofuel, but it had a cost: we were using up our food stock. They used food because making biofuel out of trees took several weeks to complete. But Norwegian scientists have drastically shortened the process for making biofuel out of wood chips and sawdust, a development that will bolster the Norwegian forestry and wood processing industries, at a time when demand for paper has waned.

Scientists were able to speed up the process by employing a super enzyme to transform the wood chips into ethanol. The enzyme works scratches the surface of the wood so other enzymes can get in there and begin the process of transforming the wood into sugar, according to ScienceDaily.

Researchers at the Norwegian University of Life Sciences (UMB) discovered the enzyme several years ago and published their work in the international journal Science in 2010. The following year, Novozymes, the world’s largest enzyme producer, purchased the technology patent from UMB. But the company needed a closer understanding of how the enzyme works.

Finn Lillelund Aachmann, a biotechnology researcher at the Norwegian University of Science and Technology, has been using nuclear magnetic resonance technology to learn more about enzymes and their molecular structure. And in doing that, they’ve been able to improve the use of these enzymes even more.

The scientific breakthrough is likely to help companies like cash-starved biofuel maker Kior, which fell far short of its product forecasts this year. Kior converts wood chips into gasoline and diesel.

Kior just received a pledge of $85 million from a Silicon Valley venture capital firm run by Vinod Khosla, according to The Washington Post. A fund owned by Bill Gates also plans to throw $15 million into the pot. The two new investors will help Kior pay to build a second wood biofuel refinery. The new investments are a combination of purchases of new common stock and the conversion of existing debt to convertible stock. Kior CEO Fred Cannon believes the investments will help make his company cash flow positive in 2015.

Last year, Kior officials anticipated making 13 million gallons of motor fuel this year, but those estimates have been drastically reduced. Cannon recently said he expects production to total just 1 million to 2 million gallons, reports the Washington Post. Some investors have filed a lawsuit against the company, alleging misrepresentation.

Khosla, for his part, is not worried about the production delays and believes it’s not out of the ordinary for companies breaking new ground to hit snags.

Kior’s stock peaked at more than $20 a share in September 2011 but tumbled to less than $1.50 a share this year. The stock is now trading at about $2.50.

To read the Science Daily article cited in this story, click here

To read the Washington Post article cited in this story, click here


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